Song of the Week: Mama Talk To Your Daughter, Magic Sam

Click Here to Listen to “Mama Talk To Your Daughter,” by Magic Sam

J.B. Lenoir (who originally wrote this song), George Thorogood, Johnny Winter, and everyone else who have ever recorded this song deliver the first line as follows: “Mama, Mama, please talk to your daughter for me.” Then what follows is a pretty typical 12-bar blues, shrugging through a few verses, a guitar solo, etc. But now listen to Magic Sam’s version.

For whatever reason, when he went to record he delivered the line totally different, cramming in four repetitions of the word “Mama” before the band thumps in behind him. And I think it’s those two extra repetitions that make Magic Sam’s version pulse with life while the other versions plonk along.

Because his take begins with that bare vocal track, it starts the recording with a very exciting moment of vulnerability. Sam sounds frazzled—right on the edge or even a little past it as he stumbles over the words. Johnny Winter and George Thorogood sing like they’re only in it for the chance to take a guitar solo, which is the problem with about 75% of blues records. A charismatic vocalist (Mike Mattison, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thorton among others) is essential to good blues music. But Magic Sam has charisma, and he has passion—or at least does a better job faking it.

Now we’re going to get a little more abstract. I have a feeling this level of thought didn’t go into Magic Sam’s decision to say a word four-plus times instead of just two, but regardless, the repetition does a very clever thing. There’s a powerful motion in stillness, in repetition; listen to Bill Withers on “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The trick is that if you repeat something enough times, like the “toy boat” tongue twister, you begin to disassociate the sounds from the words, which creates a great abstract sound. In Magic Sam’s case, singing high and close so that he overloads the mic a bit, those first four words come across as a blast of sound not unlike the guitar breaks at :54 and 1:55, which are also made up of the same lick repeated again and again. J.B. Lenoir’s original uses this guitar lick too, but in his case it sounds uncreative rather than intentional—because Lenoir’s vocal doesn’t mirror the guitar in the same way Magic Sam does. That repetition strips away all other elements leaves rhythm and groove, super-charging Magic Sam’s version and justifying his sobriquet.

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Song of the Week: If I’m Unworthy (Live), Blake Mills

Click Here to listen to “If I’m Unworthy (Live),” by Blake Mills

Part of the appeal of electric guitar is that it can be punishingly loud, walloping you with waves of gritty, gluey sound. Blake Mills understands this better than a lot of other guitarists, even though he seems like a mild-mannered barista.

Actually, he understands something much less obvious: that volume and power don’t deprive you of subtlety. This rendition of “If I’m Unworthy,” a track off of his 2014 album Heigh-Ho, proves it.

The song’s backbone is a single punishingly loud guitar tuned way down (open C#, if anyone cares). As I listened through, I kept picturing boiling lava in my mind’s eye: this powerful substance, gloopy and oozy, that still manages to pop and crackle with surprising quickness. Listen to the great dynamic contrast around :40, or the harmonic at about 1:09, right before he locks into the song’s main groove. The introduction itself attains a kind of precise sloppiness available only to the best players.

Mills effortlessly keeps a bass line and rhythmic accompaniment going as he sings, in a way that is derived from old blues players and funneled through the Black Keys and White Stripes, although Mills involves more harmonically complex ideas than his antecedents.

And while you get caught up in that complexity, as well as Mills’ not-bad-at-all voice, you’re reminded that this song is essentially about celebrating the guitar’s power when he takes a solo break at…you know what? I’m not going to tell you the time. But I think if you were in the studio when it happened, your eardrums finally popped.

After I finish listening to this song, I feel oddly cleansed. Perhaps it’s the contrast of noise to silence, but I think even more than that it’s because Mills performs in a very reverent way—it is spiritual, emotional exercise. And it rocks.

Album of the Week: Let it Bleed, The Rolling Stones (Side 2)

Aaaand we’re back. Let’s delve into side 2 of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed, their finest moment as a band and one of my favorite records ever. If you’re (Brian) jonesing for more Stones, check out Matt Fogelson’s review of Exile on Main St. here.

Side Two

6. Funk and soul drummers will occasionally talk about a groove that they “can’t turn loose.” What they mean by that is that the rhythm has a momentum of its own, and the player seems to lose control. They zone out and the physical act of producing those sounds takes over. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens on “Midnight Rambler.” It is a blues locomotive. It’s not as clever as the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but it’s not meant to be. While the Beatles got more cerebral over the course of their career, the Stones, if anything, got even less. Like a crocodile, that de-evolution has allowed them to survive.

7. “You Got the Silver” was the first time Keith Richards had ever been given a full lead vocal on a Rolling Stones album. That in and of itself is fairly remarkable. By 1969, Mick Jagger was certainly established as the only lead singer of the Rolling Stones, and to give Keith his own lead vocal almost seems against the rules. Which, luckily, is also very rock & roll. And it’s a good thing they chose to break the rules, because this is perhaps one of the most empathetic vocals on the album. Keith doesn’t have a good voice, but he has one that is true and full of pathos. The Stones are not generally a great band for lyrics, but these are some of the most well-wrought on the album: “Hey baby/What’s in your eyes/I see them shining/Like airplane lights.” Or a lyric as simple as “You got my heart/You got my soul/You got the silver/You got the gold.” It’s a sensitive, perfectly pitched performance, which builds up into a rocking coda.

8. “Monkey Man” begins with nebulous piano/guitar interplay which vaguely echoes “Gimme Shelter” before Keith Richards and Charlie Watts push it aside with a literal one-two punch at 00:21. Guitar and drums are in the driver’s seat until the bridge at 2:35, which sounds huge and orchestral, despite the fact that no new instruments are introduced. Mick Jagger cuts the bridge short at 3:13, with a re-entrance so pained you can hear the spit on the microphone. Playing around with the sonic space of this track—really dry, close mic’d guitars vs. the lush, expansive piano sounds—creates a great give and take, almost like the track is expanding and contracting as it goes along. It’s not anything new, but it is thoughtful and well done.

9. Finally, inevitably, we get to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is the loudest, most decadent, most complex song of the lot. The use of the choir is sublime and subversive—turning the Man’s institutions against him—the French horn is beautiful, and the rest of the band in fine form. The little details never fail to impress me in this tune, like the way Mick over-enunciates his “t’s” in the first verse, mocking the choir, or how the choir fades out as the organ fades in on the final vamp. I think it’s some of producer Jimmy Miller’s finest work, hands down. “Get What You Want” has been called the Stones’ response to “Hey Jude,” and that’s certainly evident. But, again, while the Beatles get more complex throughout the song, the Stones again get more elemental, stripping the song to its barest elements before building it back up.   Most importantly, it contrasts with Let It Bleed‘s opening message. The album begins on a dark, uncertain note, and over the course of the next half-hour goes through jilted love and serial killers. But its final message is one of dogged hope and practical optimism. I can’t think of a better way to end the album—and the decade—than that.

Let it Bleed is a guide to rock & roll in all the forms it was and ever will be: the symphonic, the gutbucket, the poignant and the sexy. I come back to this album again and again because to me, this is what the music is supposed to sound like. Please bury me with a copy.

Song of the Week: Baby Please Don’t Go, Them

 Click Here to Listen to “Baby Please Don’t Go,” by Them

Start with the basics: this isn’t a Van Morrison original. American bluesman Big Joe Williams first made “Baby Please Don’t Go” a hit in 1935, and since then everyone under the sun and their sister has covered it. This version, though, released as a single by Van Morrison’s band Them in 1964, is the best there is, and that statements rests firmly on the shoulders of one note.

If you’re familiar with the song, you already know which one I’m talking about—it’s the one 6 seconds in that is so out, so unbelievably wrong that it causes vertigo. It’s rancid, offensive, tense—a note so rotten not even the mangiest dog would take a snap at it. But you need the note, because this one note creates all the tension in the song’s main riff. Without it, there’s no glorious release twelve seconds later when the band kicks in. The note makes the song, and it’s a Them innovation—Big Joe Williams’ version doesn’t have it, and the John Lee Hooker version that Morrison probably first heard doesn’t have it either.

“The note” aside, the whole arrangement is urgent and unsettling. Most of the song’s forward momentum is provided by the percussive bass part, giving it a heavy proto-metal heartbeat that the drums alone can’t produce. And there’s the ubiquitous keening mid-60s Farfisa organ sound (an instrument that conjures the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” released in May ’64), as well as that mournful bass solo during the breakdown at 1:20.

Van’s voice here is raw, nasal, and grating, kind of like Bob Dylan with a sore throat. Though he recorded this at age 19, you can hear how Van’s particular expressive vocal style would develop if you tune in to his subtly shifting inflections in the breakdown. Although it hints at a beginning, it also marks a definite end, as “Baby Please” is probably one of the hardest-edged vocal performances he would give for the rest of his career. Nothing else in his solo catalogue bristles with the same kind of attitude.

Compared with the American blues versions, Them read the song on a different emotional level. They turn a mournful song about a lover leaving into a stinging rebuke, a vicious middle finger with an undercurrent of loss. This is, essentially, what the British Invasion did for American music in a microcosm: the source material gets pumped full of electricity, teen angst, and a certain irreverence, and thrown back in your face.

It’s telling that all other versions of this song that I’ve heard are modeled on the Them interpretation. But none of them come close. They’re either too fast (AC/DC), too long (Rolling Stones & Muddy Waters) or too self-indulgent (Ted Nugent). The only one I’ve ever heard come close is from a London band called Ay Ducane, but in terms of sheer innovation and groove, no one can touch Them.

Album of the Week: Heavy Chevy EP, Alabama Shakes

WARNING: This is one for the truly devoted crate-diggers among you. I discovered these songs on a bonus 45 that was included with my vinyl copy of the Shakes’ debut album–I don’t think it’s available separately. Good luck! We now return to your regularly scheduled program:

No one who has heard their album Boys and Girls can doubt that Alabama Shakes know how to rock. But they have never sounded as fierce, as frenetic, as they do on this three-track EP. Here, their influences are a little more clearly on display, with a great mix of early rock & roll/R&B sounds.

“Heavy Chevy” begins with Brittany Howard’s voice turned up to 10. She has the rawest voice in popular music today—putting her in Janis Joplin and Big Mama Thornton territory. Seriously. The band comes in with a fantastic energy that owes more to punk rock than some of their more contemplative album cuts. It’s one of those songs where you don’t necessarily understand all of the words but don’t need to in order to know that it’s about boys and girls (hey, what a great album name!) and proving that you’ve got what everyone else doesn’t.

“Pocket Change” has a great early 60’s pop sound, complete with the requisite organ part and a guitar riff that is a distant cousin of Mungo Jerry’s classic “In the Summertime.” It’s light fare that might have worked well on the album as a bit of a breather from some of the heavier stuff, both lyrically and musically. Maybe it’s a little derivative, but oh well.

“Mama” has a classic early rock & roll structure, with slapback echo on the guitar and a straight ahead drumbeat, but also boasts a really funky breakdown and Howard’s great vocals. What’s so great about this song—and about this EP more generally—is that Alabama Shakes can combine a bunch of vintage musical elements in ways that wouldn’t have happened when these styles were developing in the late 50s. Big Mama Thornton wouldn’t have played with Carl Perkins no matter how much each of them may have wanted to. So really, the songs on this EP represent a progression and natural outgrowth of the source material; modern music with vintage antecedents. And that’s maybe the hippest thing of all.

Album of the Week: Already Free, The Derek Trucks Band

It’s hard to make a good blues album. As a genre it tends to stultify into endless twelve bar progressions and guitar solos, and as much as I like those two things, I don’t necessarily want to listen to 40 minutes of it. And God knows it can be tempting to indulge in endless guitar solos, especially when you’re as talented as Derek Trucks is.

So the reason why Already Free is so remarkable is that it manages to sidestep these problems and exist as a varied, nuanced album that is still unmistakably a blues album and still contains plenty of tasty guitar.

“Down in The Flood” asserts immediately that you’re listening to a roots album—the song is initially just guitar, some foot stomping, and a bit of light electric piano that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Keb Mo album. But when the full band comes in at 1:12, the river lurches over its banks and the song becomes a lot heavier. It’s a cohesive full-band sound, rather than lots of guitar up front and a simple drumbeat. That’s another of the album’s secrets–Truck’s virtuosity doesn’t dominate the record, and the emphasis is always “Derek Trucks Band” not “Derek Truck’s Band.”

“Sweet Inspiration” has a great compressed clean guitar tone on the intro with gospel-tinged three part harmonies. The song owes more to Muscle Shoals and Motown than to Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, but as they do on other tracks, Mike Mattison’s gravelly vocals and Trucks’ slide keep the song firmly grounded in the blues tradition.

Speaking of blues, “Don’t Miss Me” and “Get What You Deserve” are pretty straight-ahead numbers, which coming as they do midway through the album, re-centers the record, even if they’re occasionally hampered by silly lyrics—see the line “Baby I’ve got a toothpick in the bottom of my walkin’ shoe,” a ham-fisted attempt to recast the blues concept of walking shoes.

“Get What You Deserve” cooks along on a Howlin’ Wolf meets Elmore James vibe, and is certainly one of the top three songs on the album. Considering its close proximity to the aforementioned “toothpick” line, it’s odd that “Get What You Deserve” contains some of my favorite lyrics on the album: “I don’t need no doctor, I don’t need no truth/Goin’ to California, honey I’m bulletproof/Just a strange believer, riding on the word.” Great imagery.

If there’s one area where Already Free doesn’t quite escape the black hole of blues clichés, it’s the lyrics. Lines like the “toothpick” fall flat, as does the forced grammatical inaccuracy of “These Days Is Almost Gone.” I cringe every time I hear Mattison sing it—“these days are almost gone” is not only more grammatical, but also neatly avoids the unpleasant “z” sound that a sustained “is” produces. Although Mattison and Trucks, who co-wrote most of the songs, are trying their best, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the strongest collection of lyrics on the record is the Dylan-penned “Down In The Flood.”

An additional area of inconsistency is with guest vocalists. Mike Mattison is such a sympathetic and expressive vocalist that I can’t imagine feeling the need to give the microphone to anyone else, and Doyle Bramhall II’s guest vocals on “Our Love” and “Maybe This Time,” just don’t connect in the same way that Mattison’s do. On these songs, the band sounds like it’s playing a store-brand version of genuine Derek Trucks Band tunes. But the other guest vocal—Susan Tedeschi on “Back Where I Started”—is a knockout performance, delivered with a vaguely torch-singer vibe that Mattison can’t summon.

But the closing track, also called “Already Free,” erases these quibbles. Like “The Lengths” on Rubber Factory, it works so well because it’s a radical departure from other songs on the album, cutting a particularly nice contrast with the raga-soul mash-up of “I Know.” “Already Free” is just two guitars, a shaker egg, and Mattison’s vocal, a simple arrangement that evokes the album’s opening foot stomps. This is the way to end an album.

Album of the Week: Rubber Factory, The Black Keys

Let’s talk elements. Let’s talk guitar and drums and vocals. Let’s talk sludge. Let’s talk about Rubber Factory, one of the most primal albums in my collection.

This album sinks its teeth into you from the first of Pat Carney’s drum hits. It’s the same kind of doom and gloom drumming that makes the opening of Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” so effective: big, stark, simple. It’s on “10 A.M. Automatic,” though, that the zeitgeist of the album emerges—loud, dirty, honest songs. There’s nothing put on in Dan Auerbach’s vocals, nothing affected about his guitar playing.

The group tears through six songs that sound like they were recorded in someone’s toilet onto a Walkman. But there’s subtlety in these tracks too. “The Desperate Man” has greasy slide work and a proto-soul groove to it that cooks along endlessly, “All Hands Against His Own” has shadings of a mellow Iggy and the Stooges. It’s a savage, bare-bones boogie.

And then, in the middle of it all, “The Lengths.” This low-down, melancholy tune is quiet, intimate, and near-perfect. This is the true standout of the album and it hits on a completely different emotional level. Auerbach’s vocal swagger is reduced to a heartbroken pleading, and the slide guitar weeps in the background. The song is so effective because it’s a break from the scuzzy blues fury of the other 12 songs on the record, setting “The Lengths” off like a diamond in an engagement ring.

The album’s second half is more varied and more interesting than the first. The Keys’ dark and menacing spin on the classic blues story of Billy Lyons and Stack O’ Lee on “Stack Shot Billy” feels like Quentin Tarantino should have directed a music video for it. Carney’s drumbeat is my favorite part of the song—that is, until Auerbach’s distorted wah and slide solo comes in at 2:00 and blows the whole thing sky-high. From there, they go into a well-done country cover of a song by the Kinks (“Act Nice and Gentle”), and then put the pedal back down till the record stops.

With writing, the general advice is to strip prose down to its barest elements, which makes it stronger, more accessible, and allows the author’s voice to shine through. It’s the same approach here, and this simple album moves along with an irresistible energy, creating a powerful and visceral record. The lesson learned on Rubber Factory is that less really is more—something the Keys could stand to remember in their current Danger Mouse iteration.