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.

Advertisements

Song of the Week: Sexy Weekend, Scoundrels

Scroll Down to Listen to “Sexy Weekend,” by Scoundrels (Plays in Spotify)

 

For every song about a summer romance gone right, there are at least two about summer romances gone awry. This is the natural order of things, and British band Scoundrels understands this. “Sexy Weekend” channels a healthy dose of self-pity and humor after a beach weekend gone wrong, providing an antidote to every Beach Boys song ever committed to acetate.

Scoundrels is a tight, vintage-leaning rock & roll/R&B outfit, and they certainly wear their influences on their sleeves. The track sounds like it could have been a forgotten Motown or Chess studio jam, complete with slightly out-of-tune guitars and drummer Joshua Martens’ crisp, swinging cymbal work. Like Ray Charles’ immortal “What’d I Say?” it sounds like the mics in the studio were jammed right in the band member’s faces, creating a close, sweaty ambiance that evokes un-air-conditioned apartments and anemic fans. Perhaps best, though, is singer George Elliot’s voice, which sounds uncannily like Jimi Hendrix’s. This allows this listener to indulge in a bit of musical alternative history—if Hendrix hadn’t been such a talented guitarist, he might have done something like this.

There’s a lot to like here, even if the clever lyrics may not age really well (it’s tough to reference Facebook in a way that feels timeless). I hope to hear more from Scoundrels, but won’t hold my breath—this song came out in 2012, but there hasn’t been much new music from them since.

Song of the Week: 1612, Vulfpeck

a0022249123_10

Scroll Down to listen to “1612,” by Vulfpeck (Opens in Spotify)

This band grooves so damn hard it’s a felony offense. They are so firmly in the pocket they might as well be lint.

The bass tone in the intro tells you everything you’re going to need to know about where this song is going—if you don’t like in the first five seconds, just shut it off. They combine the best of two different sub-genres: the earthy baby-making music of James Brown and his bands, mixed with some slight intergalactic weirdness straight from the P-Funk mothership.

Guest vocalist Antwaun Stanley turns in such a joyous, texturally-rich performance that you swiftly forget he’s singing about, like, the unlock code to his apartment/heart or something. In no other genre do the actual words you’re singing count for less. In fact, these are just shy of ridiculous, but that only adds to the tone here, particularly the way Stanley deadpans “Frank Sinatra.”

It might be a surprise to learn that the rest of this band is so white that you would lose them in a snowstorm, and so unbearably hipster that they probably only consume non-GMO chia-soy lattés. All of this is incidental, because they attack the music with a great attitude and serious musicianship that never feels overly derivative. James Brown is assuredly in Funk Heaven, and he is looking down from his groovitudinal cloud at Vulfpeck and smiling. Now go check out their new album, Thrill of the Arts.

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!

Song of the Week: Cry to Me, Solomon Burke

Scroll Down to Listen to “Cry to Me,” by Solomon Burke (plays in Spotify)

Now I can’t pretend to any music nerd cred on this one—though the song was originally released on Atlantic, I heard it when I went to go see Guy Ritchie’s remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (It was also, Wikipedia tells me, in Dirty Dancing). I knew of Solomon Burke beforehand, but hand’t explored much of his catalogue. For the average listener, he’s frankly a second-tier star, and maybe with good reason. Well, apart from this song.

It’s everything you could want from an early ‘60s song. It hits that ideal spot between Motown pop, rock & roll, and the Muscle Shoals sound. That glorious space in the recording and luscious reverb date the track without making it sound kitschy. It’s been called “proto-soul,” which is accurate but misleading because it implies that it’s not a fully-fledged musical statement in its own right.

Of course the standout is Burke’s voice, which is a lovely instrument—it incites while the music soothes, keeping that hint of internal tension you need to keep a song compelling. It’s the give-and-take that makes the song so strong, and Burke avoids the tendency of Otis Redding and other “shouters” to overwhelm the band.

Spin it at your next swingin’ get-together, hepcat.

Song of the Week: SOB, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats

Scroll Down to Listen to “SOB” by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats (Plays with Spotify)

Did you see this band annihilate the Tonight Show last week? Let’s hope not—otherwise what I’m about to tell you won’t come as a surprise. This is the most incendiary soul tune I’ve heard in 2015, and that probably won’t change as the year winds down.

Retro-inspired soul bands like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats pop up pretty commonly—there seems to be something in the water every few years. Out of any given crop, only one or two sound right to me, and even then, like an unreliable car, they can develop a variety of problems as they age.

They can be hampered by an inability to write compelling lyrics (looking at you, Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears), innovate within the genre (sorry, Charles Bradley), or just plain run out of gas. But I this band has something different under the hood.

To start, they understand songcraft—or perhaps more importantly, they understand what’s going to get them radio play: stomp-clap and gospel trappings that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Of Monsters and Men song, a nice horn hook, and a naughty enough refrain that your mom won’t like it (still a solid-gold guarantee of sales, I think). The most important quality, though, is a charismatic frontman, and Nathaniel Rateliff, with his bulldog features and crazy spider legs, fills that role very well.

But there’s a little more to him. Thematically this is a song about trying to stay clean and failing, a subject that doesn’t pop up on radio or late-night TV that often. When Rateliff shouts the titular naughty phrase, it’s delivered with a burr of frustration and a hint of glee. The heavy theme and layered delivery reveal Rateliff’s roots as a singer-songwriter, who as recently as November 2014 was playing a very different type of music (in which he sounds a little like Sean Rowe). I think Rateliff’s ability to work in such different idioms successfully as well as his understanding of what good songwriting entails will keep him and the Night Sweats going long after their peers have broken down on the roadside.