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.

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Song of the Week: The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, The Marsalis Family

Click Here to listen to “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” by the Marsalis Family

This post originally appeared on Turntablr, Vintage Voltage’s spirit animal

I like jazz. The typical reader of this blog may not, so I promise to not go all out on jazz terminology. Like dubstep or indie folk, jazz is a genre that takes a while to wrap your head around and appreciate. So you have a free pass if you don’t dig this right away, but give it a few listens before you dismiss it entirely.

The name Marsalis is big in jazz circles—trumpeter Wynton is already a living legend, saxophonist Branford regularly packs concert halls, and their father Ellis taught for many years at the University of New Orleans. In 2001 the entire Marsalis family (including trombonist Delfeayo and drummer Jason) got together in New Orleans to lay down this album. I actually saw them on their subsequent tour, but since I was nine, I didn’t really appreciate it.

This track features Ellis on piano and Jason on drums, backed by Roland Guerin on the bass. Ellis takes a corny showtune (originally from Oklahoma!) and imbues it with a deeply funky energy.

People looking to understand what makes a song “jazz” should play the original version of “Surrey” first, and then play this version. The difference is in the phrasing: Ellis deletes notes he doesn’t like, repeats ones he does, and gets lazy with it when he wants. It’s all about feel.

Guerin sets the tone with his bass entrance at 00:46—if you don’t have speakers with good clear bass, find a pair that do. Ellis opens the track up at 00:59 with an incredibly lush two-handed chord. He states the main theme at 01:22, and he swings it hard.

A word, if I may, on Jason’s drum solo at 04:09. It’s not Neil Peart, that’s for sure—for starters, Jason probably has four or five drums compared to Neil’s 20+. It’s not a technically mind blowing solo, but it’s not supposed to be. Jazz drummers prize locking into a “groove” above everything else: steady, pulsing tempo. That’s exactly what Jason does here: he locks in, and then manipulates the groove all over the place. It’s a different type of technical mastery.

So there you have it. That’s jazz. There’s a lot of subtlety here, and I still pick up on new stuff every time. My current favorite is Ellis’ outro at 07:42—the way he turns the melody into some sort of jazzy doorbell. They’re having fun, and that’s evident no matter how much you know about jazz.

Song of the Week: A Momentary Lapse of Judgement (Live), AJ Croce

Click Here to Listen to “A Momentary Lapse of Judgement (Live),” by AJ Croce

Before you ask, yes, AJ Croce is the son of Jim Croce, one of my most favorite singer-songwriter from the 70s. Though this live acoustic version is reminiscent of what his dad did, I think AJ actually sounds closer to Elvis Costello here—his voice has that same reedy honk and his chord choices are a little more complex than the relatively straightforward songs his dad wrote. Though the recorded version of this song is firmly in the country category, this version has a more complex sonic palate—kind of a honky-tonk western swing tune. (Also, “this version has a more complex sonic palate” may be the single most pretentious clause I’ve ever written.)

What really drew me to this version of the song, though, was the chemistry between Croce and his guitarist Michael Bizar. The guitar duo is, I think, one of the most flexible pairings in pop music. There’s a lot of different sounds you can coax out of just two instruments like that, and these guys know how to maximize their sound. Bizar’s entrance at 00:36, for example, is just percussive strumming, which gives the song a rhythmic backbone without drums—a technique bluegrass players have used for years. The two men work in harmony to fill each other’s sonic space, a technique Keith Richards calls “guitar weaving.” To do it right, you have to really know your partner, as Croce and Bizar do. Croce seems to be able to anticipate where Bizar is going with his solo lines, and adjusts his comping accordingly. That kind of telepathic connection is one of the best parts about playing music—it’s startling how you can get a feel for what another player will do. It doesn’t hurt that Bizar is a great lead player who has an ear for crafting solo lines that crest and crash like waves.