Song of the Week: Come Down, Anderson.Paak

0e1836c9Scroll down to listen to “Come Down” (Opens in Spotify)

“You know, they’re actually way better live.” Every music snob worth their salt has said this–whether to assert dominance in a conversation with other snobs (seeing a band live garners ultimate cred) or to lamely save face when a fellow listener is underwhelmed by a studio recording.

Neither circumstance is true in this case. Based on what I’ve seen on NPR’s Tiny Desk and other videos, Anderson.Paak and the Free Nationals do truly sound better live. Perhaps a live setting just provides a better conduit for Paak’s vim, or that live musicians have an ability to mesh more organically than a drum track. But that’s not to take anything away from the recorded version of this song, which was stuck in my head for most of last week.

“Come Down” is just as tough to pin down as Anderson.Paak himself. He’s a drummer, but also a singer, but also a rapper, just as the song is hip-hop, but also soul, but also alternative. He’s got a vocal texture reminiscent of a young James Brown, with a bright, gritty timbre. Unlike Brown, though, Paak foregoes drawn-out shouts and squeals in favor of a machine-gun attack of hard consonants–his drummer’s sense of rhythm is present in every hard “c” and “t.” His delivery is a speak/sing mix, that, along with the instrumentation and deft guitar playing in the backing track calls to mind Cake, but steeped in a cultural stew (African-American, Asian, Mexican) that is unmistakably LA.

Artists like Anderson.Paak that defy easy categorization have always been my favorites, and I hope Paak continues to add influences and rely a little more heavily on live instrumentation as he develops. In the meantime, though, I’ll be looking for concert tickets.

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Album of the Week: Brun, Bernard Adamus

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Scroll down to listen to the entire album on Spotify

In the early twentieth century, the barrier between “blues” and “not blues” was permeable. There was fluidity to understanding what constituted the genre such that WC Handy, Louis Armstrong, and Bukka White could all play blues and have it sound different. This flexibility allowed the genre to flourish, even as the definition of the genre became diffuse so quickly that the blues trend quickly exhausted itself.

Although the 60s blues-rock wave revivified the genre, it also, I think, is responsible for the blues’ current ossified state. In order to bring the blues back out of the margins, Eric Clapton and co. pushed the label to denote something very specific: twelve bar forms in guitar-friendly keys like E and A, with extended solos in minor pentatonic. This has been the dominant paradigm in the blues since the late 60s, and even the periodically lauded “saviors of blues music” (Stevie Ray Vaughan in the ‘80s, Kenny Wayne Shepherd in the ‘90s, and Joe Bonamassa in the 2010s,) do little more than reheat licks so old they’ve got freezer burn on them.

The blues has, by and large, become boring. If the genre is going to survive, listeners and musicians need to look back to the music’s initial, encompassing definition. We must embrace new chord progressions, new arrangements, and new perspectives, not just increasingly crusty old men wringing another note from a guitar. Blues is universal. Let’s give it a chance to be that again.

Whew, ok.

Bernard Adamus is exactly the kind of artist suited to take blues forward. He’s French-Canadian and sings almost entirely in a thick Québecois patois, but this is incidental because the feelings that saturate his 2009 debut Brun are unquestionably the blues in all its forms, from truly dejected to drunkenly indifferent and gleefully self-deprecating.

As the first bone-shaking guitar chord comes in at the 0:15 second mark in the opener “Cauchemar de Course,” this all shifts into focus. Yes, there are some elements here in common with that the most hackneyed blues songs—it’s in E minor, for example, and there is technically a guitar solo. But there’s so much more that’s peculiar. A trombone provides the bottom end, there’s no normal drum set, and the song’s chord structure totally ignores the IV chord in favor of a demonic carousel powered by the I and V chords alone. The atmosphere is one of undeniable dread; the galloping of at least two out of Four Horsemen. The same feeling motivates Skip James in “Devil Got My Woman.”

“La Question À 100 Piasses” sits in a similar raw emotional space, evident in Adamus’ vibrato and sloppy vocal control, at times reminiscent of Professor Longhair. But we’re even further afield in this track than we were on the opener. The drummer is playing a breakbeat, and most of Adamus’ lyrics are, well, rapped. Hip-hop/blues crossover is logical: both are highly vernacular forms with repetitive musical structures, one from the beginning of the twentieth century, and one from the end of it. (John Lee Hooker’s talking blues and A Tribe Called Quest are less far removed than we might think.) Adamus isn’t breaking ground here, but what’s remarkable is that this delivery doesn’t sound gimmicky, unlike other artists who employ the technique (see: G. Love). Adamus crams so many words into the bar that he resorts to this delivery only out of need—because of the narrator’s paranoia or overactive brain or sense that he must share all of this information while he still can.

The excellent “Le fou de l’ile” veers even further into this territory, with beatboxing and a repeated slide guitar figure. Together these elements call to mind Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Harper’s “Steal My Kisses,” although Adamus likely has more in common with Beck than Harper. Lyrically, this track also features a uniquely Canadian hybrid of English and French, and Adamus freely switches between the two languages for emphasis or to make rhymes fit. These songs aren’t the blues as most listeners know them, and yet, they can’t be anything else.

When Adamus does revert to the forms and structures that sound most like the blues we’ve come to accept, he holds his own with the best of contemporary interpreters. On songs like “Les Raisons” and “Acapulco” Adamus’ grit and slightly theatrical intonation convey a wry weariness, particularly on lines like “Mais bon, on a toute nos raisons” (“well, I guess we all have our reasons”). In terms of his vocal prowess, I’d say only Mike Mattison surpasses him on the contemporary scene.

Instrumentally, these more typical numbers neatly sidestep the 1960s influence of British players and even electric Chicago blues by sticking to resonator guitar, pianos, and brass, restoring a sense of warmth and intimacy to the blues. In the 60s, that feeling got lost at Budokan, Royal Albert Hall, and sports arenas across the planet, as large venues made sounds increasingly sterile. It’s not that the blues must be an intimate music, but it should have the option, and Adamus restores a sense of scale with these songs, even (particularly?) in the nonsense numbers “Le Bol” and “…De Toilette” which feature off-key group vocals and a fair amount of fumbling.

Adamus brings variety back to a genre that for the better part of half a century has been rigidly defined. Although he’s not the only one leading the charge for a more encompassing definition of the blues, he personifies the main tenants of what the blues will need to move forward as a living art form. He freely hybridizes, allows his music to have a sense of scale, minimizes solos and puts the focus back on a feeling and on a groove. And although Canada is maybe not the most foreign place in the world for an American listener, Adamus still proves an important point: this is music that can be made anywhere by anyone, and that’s where the blues is most at home.

Top Ten Songs of 2015: #5-1

Welcome back. Below you’ll find my top 5 picks for this year. No one has ever asked me how I evaluate these things, but I’ll tell you anyway. For the top 5, a song has to impress me both lyrically and musically–although the proportions are not always 50/50. I’m looking for durable songs that I can take with me into the new year and beyond.

This year, though, I’m also including a Guilty Pleasure of the Year, which is a song that I enjoyed very much every time I heard it this year, but will happily leave behind me. Will this be a permanent category in Vintage Voltage Year End lists from now on? Great question. I’ll let you know.

Building on last week’s entry, these songs are available as a Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page. This playlist now includes all of the songs on both this week’s post and last week’s (again, with the exception of Adele), for uninterrupted listening pleasure. Yee-haw!

 

  1. Whiskey and You, Chris Stapleton

Tim McGraw, the human personification of Miller Lite, recorded agruably the best-known version of this song, but Chris Stapleton, a professional Nashville songwriter, penned it—and dozens of other modern country hits. Stapleton’s album garnered a lot of praise this year, maybe because the idea of a Nashville insider finally recording his own material is a perennially popular story. The album didn’t do much for me, as much as I tried to like it, but Stapleton’s reading of this song is untouchable.
He handles the material as only the songwriter can, starting with a big, seemingly obvious choice: it’s a song about being lonely, so Stapleton recorded it with his voice and his guitar. That’s the entire arrangement. Gone are the background vocals, steel guitar, and all the other noise on McGraw’s version. Streamlining the song makes it far more impactful. Lines like “And I’ll be hurting when I wake up on the floor/But I’ll be over it by noon/That’s the difference between whiskey and you” should evoke a rueful nod from almost anyone with emotions. Because it has been distilled to its essence, Stapleton’s recording is universal and powerful. I guess that’s the difference between whiskey and Miller Lite.

 

  1. Doin it Right, STS x RJD2

A few months ago I was raving about STS’s lyrical creativity, humor, and narrative skill, and he refined all these qualities on this year’s collaborative album with producer RJD2. “Doin’ It Right” is the most accessible track on the record, and hit everything I like in a hip-hop song. It’s bouncy, hook-filled, and boasts not only a whistle hook but also a brass section. STS pulls off some excellent lyrical contortions: “It’s in the can/sugar man/Leonard, Shane or Ray Robinson/well Goddamn/like Cassius Clay/what’d he say?/shook up the world I’m a bad bad man.” The profane and awkward into, in which the narrator tries unsuccessfully to pick up a girl at his own concert, is quintessential STS. In my (very limited) experience, he’s one of the warmest, most human MCs out there right now—keep an eye on him. Actually, don’t just watch him—go out and buy his record.

 

  1. Crosseyed Heart, Keith Richards

This is probably the least surprising pick on here for anyone who reads the blog, but I couldn’t let Keith’s latest solo album go by without saying something about it. At 1:53, “Crosseyed Heart,” the shortest song on this list, but it feels to me like a complete portrait of the man at this time in his life. There’s a wonderful intimacy to the performance—it’s as if he made this song up for you while you were sitting in his library. For a man whom millions of people have experienced at a remove, this sonic distance is intoxicating. The track also signals, in a way, the final stage of the Apotheosis of Keith. Both he and the Stones have always drawn from American delta and country blues, but rarely have they created something so true. At this point in his career, Keith no longer has to sound authentic. He is the blues god that he looked up to 50 years ago.

 

  1. Sugar, Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds

I don’t have any Doppler radar to back up this forecast, but I think we should expect a big soul revival moving through in 2016. Between Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (remember last week?), St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and several other bands that follow the “Singer Name and the Noun” formula, a soul storm seems all but imminent. The problem with these revivals, of course, is that so many of the bands sound the same or are too consciously retro-cute. Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds—though adhering to naming conventions—put out one of the freshest soul songs this year with “Sugar.” Lead singer Arleigh Kincheloe has great presence and magnetism and reminds me of Nocturnals-era Grace Potter with her delivery. The song’s chorus is easy enough that you can sing it the second time you hear it, and everything is so infectious you can’t help but join. These guys are worthy of a much larger audience than some of their more-popular contemporaries.

 

  1. Young Moses, Josh Ritter

I’ve known about Josh Ritter for some time, but his hushed, contemplative songs never really spoke to me. This year’s album Sermon on The Rocks, however, has turned up the volume loud enough for me to hear him. It sounds like a John Cougar Mellencamp album written by a man with an MFA, and I mean both of those descriptors in their most positive sense. “Young Moses” tells a metaphorical story of a man breaking free of his bonds. In the lyrics, Ritter blends Christian scripture, peyote, and Johnny Appleseed, a mix of religion and folklore that renders the song uniquely American, and I think, timeless. With a different arrangement, I think this song would be equally at home in a New Mexico border town or an Appalachian roots jam.

 

 

GUILTY PLEASURE OF THE YEAR: twenty one pilots, Tear in My Heart

Everything about twenty one pilots is ten years too late: their stylized nomenclature, their dyed hair/all black look, and their incredibly infectious punky dance pop. “Tear in My Heart” has a simple hook that velcros itself to your cerebellum and stays there, the way Fall Out Boy’s hits used to. Little wonder that twenty one pilots is currently signed to Fueled By Ramen, the label that at one point housed Fall Out Boy and Jimmy Eat World and still is home to Fun. and Panic! At the Disco. (see what I mean about the stylized names?)

I am also a sucker for audacious songs, and Tyler Joseph is unafraid to write some of the goofiest lyrics I heard all year. He rhymes “armor” with “carver” and “farther,” rages against the DOT, and reveals what perhaps may be the line of the year: “My taste in music is YOUR FACE.”

And none of it matters. It’s still catchy. Just goes to prove, as Joseph accurately observes, “the songs on the radio are OK.”

 

Alright kids, that’s it. Playlist is below (the first four songs are from last week’s post). Thanks for reading this year, and best wishes for a kickin’ 2016. And may I suggest a New Year’s Resolution? Buy more music.

Top Ten Songs of 2015: #10-6

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the deluge of year-end “Best Of” lists is upon us, and Vintage Voltage is no different. What follows is the first batch of new music that I loved this year. All of these songs are 100% grass-fed, organic, Grade A rock & roll. We’ll be back next week with the final five, so don’t touch that dial.

This year, rather than the typical YouTube links, I’ve made a Spotify Playlist of these songs. You can find that at the bottom of the page.

  1. Don’t Wanna Fight No More, Alabama Shakes

Four out of five dentists agree: the second album is tough to crush. But according to almost everyone, Alabama Shakes did it. They tastefully updated their neo-soul sound without straying too far from the power of Brittany Howard’s voice or the solid grounding of the band’s rhythm section. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is a great example—the whole track is drenched in spectral, haunting echo, but Howard’s painful squeal at the beginning of the song reminds you that however ethereal the band may get, they’ll remain grounded in the world of flesh and blood. And thank God, because we need them here.

 

  1. I’ve Been Failing, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Although it can’t touch “S.O.B” for sheer popularity, this is probably the second strongest cut on the album. It’s a mid-tempo track, but it swings hard on the back of an uncluttered piano figure and some great handclaps. It reminds me of “Soothe Me,” by Sam and Dave, and as a result I dance like a bad Motown* backup singer whenever this song comes on. Rateliff’s vocal is less frantic than in “S.O.B.,” but that actually allows his voice’s character to shine through better. Lyrically, Rateliff is really cornering the market on catchy tunes with emotionally ambiguous lyrics, and it’s difficult to say if this song’s protagonist is happy with where he is. Again, this hints at Rateliff’s depth as a songwriter, and I think will mean that the band weathers the incoming Soul Storm 2016 (of which more next week).

*For the three or four people who just sniffed at my “error,” rest assured I realize Sam and Dave recorded most of their big hits for Stax, not Motown. Now step away from the comment box.

 

  1. Send My Love (To Your New Lover), Adele*

Is anyone immune to Adele? She’s for sure your mom’s favorite, and you can’t blame her. She’s (Adele, not your mom) not the most musically inventive in the world, but Adele enjoys a sort of fan consensus not available to many musical acts these days. As many other critics have pointed out, another act that commands the same mass appeal is Taylor Swift, so it’s no surprise that Adele’s co-writers and producers on this track (Max Martin and Shellback), have penned a bunch of hits for Swift, including “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

I, however, prefer to think of this song as Adele’s own take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Like that song, “Send My Love” starts with a syncopated, funky hook, and builds to a great anthemic chorus with excellent sing-along potential. This should probably be the next single from 25, so liking this song may partly be a self-defense mechanism—because soon no one will be able to escape it.

*You’ll have to imagine this one, because it’s not on Spotify. Sorry about that.

  1. Blacka, Blackalicious

Although Blackalicious’ first album in ten years wasn’t meant to be a sweeping look at the state of American Blackness in the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly or D’Angelo’s Messiah was, Gift of Gab still makes his own statement of solidarity on this track. It’s a theme he’s addressed before (“Shallow Days,” off Nia leaps to mind), but he shows on “Blacka” that he’s lost none of his creativity. On this track, he compares the positive and negative connotations of blackness, broadly writ, insisting that he is both “darker than the random check of passengers” and “blacker than the President/well, half of him.” Chief Xcel’s production provides a nicely insistent syncopated underpinning, and his work really shines elsewhere on the album (“The Blowup” and others). Gab remains my favorite MC, and it was a treat to hear from him again this year. Fittingly, the track begins and ends with a Lee “Scratch” Perry sample that states, “I am the only man that can cure the world by speaking words.”

 

  1. Strangers, Langhorne Slim

On their new album, Langhorne Slim and the Law manage to capture some of the raucousness of their live show in a more polished, thoughtful package than their previous album, The Way We Move. “Strangers” in particular finds them with a slick, almost over-produced sound that should expose the band to a wider audience. Slim’s voice is still a treat to listen to, crackly and yelpy, while the band has managed to find a place for their banjo rock that doesn’t sound like they’re trying to fit in with a now-expired trend. This single represents a big step forward for the group, not least because at 3:36 it’s one of their longer songs. Even if the vocal hook sounds to me like it’s going to appear on an anti-depressant commercial any day now, it’s still a great tune. Go see these guys live if you can—they’re the real deal.

If you’re a regular reader, you probably saw a lot of these coming, but there’s a couple surprises on tap next week–including a new category: Guilty Pleasure of the Year. See you in a week!

Top 5: Hip-Hop Songs…So Far

In the part of New York State I grew up in, you spent your study halls either googling Eminem lyrics or doodling the American Idiot heart grenade in your notebooks. Or maybe you didn’t care about music at all, but I tried not to talk to those people.

If you read this blog, you could probably guess how I spent my study halls. For better or worse, those musical choices you make in Middle School and High School stick with you, so I wasn’t into hip-hop for a long time.

Besides that fairly arbitrary Midde School choice, I think at the time, the lyrics and music I was hearing in hip-hop just didn’t appeal to me. The oldies station that I listened to in the car with my folks helped me understand songs about girls and driving fast, but it took me about eight years to figure out what Kanye was rhyming “Gold Digger” with. (Honestly.)

Since then, I’ve had a slow but steady rapprochement with hip-hop. I’ve come to this music late, and I’m still doing my homework. I know what I like—soul samples, literate lyrics, a certain degree of difficulty in delivery—but it has taken a long time to narrow it down. So here’s a few cuts from the last 10 years of study. Call it the Miseducation of John Boudreau.

 

1. “Blackalicious,” Reanimation
I heard this song, no joke, on a Sunkist orange soda commercial in like maybe 2007. I was curious enough that I looked it up on the internet, and it since then, this song has been my hip-hop North Star. Like a great chef, Chief Xcel simultaneously served me both new ingredients that I hadn’t tried (breakbeats and scratching) as well as familiar ingredients (horns) in such a way that I able to appreciate the whole dish rather than picking it apart. The lyrics, too, were no less masterful. Gift of Gab’s polysyllabic delivery and awesome rhythmic sense meshed with the jazz songs I was starting to listen to around the same time. And he was funny, too! The lines “Rappers want flames, man I injure these shrimps/skew ‘em on the barb’ with some hickory chips/I’m a level higher than the intermediates” pretty much sealed it for me.

Insofar as I can say anything about the genre being only a casual listener, it’s that if you are into hip-hop and haven’t heard Blackalicious (or have only heard “Alphabet Aerobics”), you might want to remedy that.

 

2. “Crabbuckit,” K-Os

Again, another score for our consumer society: I discovered this song in an American Eagle not too long after that soda commercial (’08 or ’09?). K-Os hooked me with their musicality; I thought it was against the rules for a hip-hop group to play chords or use real instruments. Maybe it was, and K-Os just broke the rules. This time it was the bassline that grabbed me first. Not only was it huge and inescapable, but I loved that it was absolutely played on an upright bass rather than electric or a sample. The sax solo further cemented, it of course—exciting and raunchy, almost as good as Bobby Keys. The beginning to the second verse contained the lyrical syncopation I was looking for as well: “It’s a conniption fit and the microphone’s lit/I take it higher like a bird on a wire retire the fire I never/cause I’m just movin’ on up/choosin to touch the unseen craving the clutch.” Another instant classic.

 

3. “Cut Me Off,” STS

There was a dry spell for a while in the late high school/early college years where I was busy getting into other stuff and scaring myself in the process (experimenting with country, etc.), but the next rapper who really caught me was STS. He’s got plenty of good compositions of his own (“Cliché” is one of the finest satirical hip-hop songs I’ve heard), but this is the one that first impressed me. STS is probably the first rapper who I was able to appreciate just on his lyrical merits alone. His ability to tell a story with humor and insight proved to me that narrative rapping was just as viable as the more stream-of-consciousness lyrics I was familiar with before that. A sample: “My sign’s a Sag/She a Capricorn/We incompatible, and I shoulda known/She put my number in her Blackberry/I use Iphone.” This music video edit is actually the best version of the song—the recorded version has one more verse that totally ruins it. STS just put out a new album with RJD2, which is definitely worth your time.

 

4. “What?,” A Tribe Called Quest

Like I said, I’m still doing my homework, and I slept through most of Hip-Hop History, so my chronology has been completely backwards. That’s why I hadn’t heard A Tribe Called Quest until last year, when my suitemate got out of the shower and blasted “Check the Rhime” as loud as possible from his speakers while dressing. That’s an introduction you can’t ignore. As it has for most people, the second half of The Low-End Theory blew my mind. My favorite track on the album is undoubtedly the koan-like “What?” From the excellent clavinet intro to Q-Tip’s mispronunciation of “gefilte” as “kapelka,” it’s just a fun song. There have been a few times where I’ve been playing it too loud at work, and I have to jump for the volume knob right before “What is a poet all balls and no cock?” and the bit about ménage-a-trois. Freak freak y’all indeed.

 

5. “Feel Right,” Mark Ronson feat. Mystikal

If I was going about this logically, my hip-hop education probably should have begun with a trawl through Mark Ronson’s back catalogue. He is a man who has absolutely done his homework. Before he became the poster child for the mid-2000s retro revival, he was a hot-ticket DJ in both London and New York, which means he knows what sounds best behind an emcee, and what album the groove came from. This is an original beat, but still sounds like he pulled it from dirty ‘60s funk album. Though Mystikal falls into the “crummy human being” category, he’s still a charismatic performer, with a magnetic, brassy timbre and great speed. He also plays with dynamics, which isn’t something I’ve really heard other emcess do. I think the song is so appealing because it’s essentially a funk song—something James Brown would have worked out in an alternate universe. Bruno Mars and the backup singers play Bobby Byrd and the J.B.s to Mystikal’s James Brown. Doing your homework pays off, I guess.