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.

Song of the Week: Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries, Blaze Foley

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Scroll down to listen to “Big Cheeseburgers and Good French Fries,” by Blaze Foley (Opens in Spotify)

People don’t seem to write many songs about omelettes, or beef carpaccio, but cheeseburgers and French fries have inspired more than their fair share of songs. Maybe this is a leftover from rock & roll’s early obsession with cars and thus drive-ins, or maybe it’s because touring musicians have consumed many a lukewarm Big Mac on the road at 1am. I actually listened to this song enough times on Tuesday that I physically craved a hamburger for lunch.

The kicker is, of course, that this song is only tangentially about cheeseburgers (or French fries, for that matter). Blaze Foley pens an ode to individuality and carefree living, two things he certainly knew a lot about. He was a quintessentially creative and self-destructive songwriter who operated on the fringes of the outlaw country scene in the 1970s, and briefly lived in both a tree house and his station wagon.

What impresses here is not only his deft picking, but how easily he conveys his charisma with his deep voice (shadings of Sean Rowe). This full-band arrangement is irrepressible, and seems custom-made for a morning summer drive. The lyrics dispense most of their wisdom in couplets rather than verses, and all of that wisdom has tongue firmly in cheek. “Don’t go skiing cause I can’t ski/but that kind of thing never did bother me/so it shouldn’t be botherin’ you” is my favorite.

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.

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.

Album of the Week: On the Track, Leon Redbone

Let me be clear about something: I am a Yankee. I have not spent very much time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and certainly not in summer. I therefore have no great experience with the kind of syrupy, incapacitating heat that forces you to stay on your front porch, immobile and slowly sweating as the sun rises and falls.

However, if I was in that position, this is the album I would play.

If the name Leon Redbone isn’t familiar, you will recognize him either from his appearances very early on as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live, or from his duet with Zooey Deschanel on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” from the movie Elf. The fact that the same man appears in two radically different generational touchstones—you just dated yourself, Dear Reader—is a testament to his quirky but enduring appeal.

In this, our post-Mumfordian era, a man who consciously dresses like he’s from the 1920s and reinterprets the Great American songbook isn’t that strange, but when On the Track came out in 1975, I imagine it was a bit shocking. The entire album featured music written 40 years ago—music that the average Saturday Night Live viewer’s parents listened to when they were kids. And though Redbone was hardly very old himself in ‘75, his renditions of these songs evoke genuine comfort with his material.

Redbone’s voice is undoubtedly the first thing you notice. He sings the way a gentle grandfather might, if this grandfather marinated his vocal chords in tobacco and had a potato permanently down his throat. For all its bizarre timbre it is a supremely likable voice, warm and full of character. Nowhere is this clearer then when he does a sort of scat singing midway between trumpet and human voice on songs like “Marie.” Redbone dubs this “instrument” the throat tromnet, and it’s the kind of affectation that a lesser talent, or a more self-conscious one, wouldn’t be able to carry off.

His voice is so mesmerizing that it quickly overshadows his guitar playing, but it too is a marvel of idiosyncrasy. He frames chords rather than playing their full voicings, and his fingerpicked approach coupled with the small-bodied guitar he favors provide a nice mid-heavy counterpoint to his voice. The double-time section in “Some of These Days” has much in common with ragtime piano—no accident I’m sure—and showcases Redbone’s deft fingering.

The arrangements are purposely low-tech and a little scattershot, again presaging the low-fi approach favored by another generation of revivalists (looking at you, Jack White). They feel intimate and warm, but it’s not an album that embraces so much as it refreshes you. If you’re sitting on that sticky, humid front porch, On the Track is a tall drink full of ice.

And that is the true beauty of Redbone’s approach. By scaling everything down and treating the material in his own humble way, Redbone removes these songs from the flash and dazzle of the stage or the concert hall, and puts them back where they belong: in people’s homes.

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.

Top 10 Songs of 2014: 5-1

And we’re back! After a week of intensely scientific tabulation involving a horde of lab rats and a rather nifty slide rule, the editorial team here at Vintage Voltage has arrived at the top 5 songs of 2014. These are scientifically proven to be the best songs of the year, guaranteed to induce eargasm by the second chorus.

Ok, not quite.

The fact is, I’m just one guy. I can’t pretend that I listened to everything that came out in the last 365 days (apologies again to FKA twigs), and I don’t really have much of a finger on the pulse of what’s hot and what’s not. But these songs meant a lot to me in the past year. They made me stop and listen really hard, and then hit the replay button. That may not be a very scientific criterion for inclusion, but these songs are my songs, and I hope that maybe they’ll become yours too.

5. Madman, Sean Rowe

There seems to be a few unifying factors going on in this list so far—rootsy guys with beards (cf. Ray LaMontagne), and singers with voices that will give your subwoofer a workout (see the next song by George Ezra). Sean Rowe has a voice I would know anywhere, dark and sweet as red wine. “Madman,” off of his album of the same name, contains a lot of elements that made me like “Desirée” so much: a soul/R&B groove removed from his solo acoustic work, bright, trebley guitars. But mostly for me it’s about that voice. If I could wrap myself in it like a buffalo robe, I would.

4. Budapest, George Ezra

I first heard this song sitting in my friend’s kitchen during the infamous 2014 Keene NH Pumpkin Riots–a story for another time. The song didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but after rediscovering it on the radio a couple months ago, I couldn’t get enough of it. When I first heard it, I thought the song’s vocal hook, the way Ezra stretches out “you” in the chorus, was kind of gimmicky. It is, but now I think it’s ok—especially because Ezra has such a nice voice, sounding like a slightly higher-pitched Sean Rowe (a rosé to Rowe’s claret). But beyond that, the song reminds me of Buddy Holly’s work—simple, not afraid to be a little silly (“be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby”), and relentlessly, criminally catchy. This song dominated my life for about a month after rediscovering it. His album will be released in the US on January 27th. It’s going to be big.

3. Christmas Eve, Nickel Creek

As a set of songs, Nickel Creek’s A Dotted Line is really satisfying. There’s not a weak moment on the album, and the band sounds wonderful together despite coming back after a long hiatus. I knew all this when I wrote about the album back in April, but now after months of living with this music, there’s a few tracks that float to the top.

“Christmas Eve” is all about expansions and contractions, with the sonic spectrum unfolding into a broad, full sound, and then condensing into simpler elements at the beginning and end of the track. It’s like a series of deep breaths, in and out. And deep breaths are necessary given the sensitive nature of Sean Watkins’ lyric, which resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back in April. The falling-out he describes so frankly has elements that are expressed in the music and vice versa. The confusion and mourning finds expression in small motifs, and Sara Watkin’s violin solo injects a shot of tea & sympathy into the whole arrangement. Nickel Creek isn’t the first band to create such a deft symbiosis between words and music, of course, but I think they were one of the bands that did it best this year. “Christmas Eve” is a song that has followed me and grown with me, and one I’ll always associate with 2014.

Note: Oddly enough, the entire Internet seems not to have the album version of this song available for me to link to. I’ve included a link to an inferior live version. You should try and find the album version on Spotify or something–it’s really worth it. Sorry, gang.

2. Seventeen, Lake Street Dive

I’m in love with this entire band and would take them all out for a nice steak dinner. Lake Street Dive sounds like nothing else out right now that I’m aware of, and not just because of Rachel Price’s sublime voice. They are an unabashedly brainy band, conservatory-educated, and they let it show in songs like “Seventeen.”

Of course, there has always been brainy music out there, as any Rush fan would loudly and insistently tell you. The Lake Street Dive difference, however, is that their musical complexity is accessible and unexpected. “Seventeen” changes tempo three times (!), seamlessly, the bass part mocks the pop/rock standard of only playing roots and fifths, and the drumming is tight tight tight. They also experiment with vocal texture by playing Mike Calabrese’s fuzzy high tenor off of Price’s liquid alto, a contrast which helps spotlight each voice.

They’ve done their homework, too. Sounds are cribbed from Motown, jazz, and the lighter side of rock, lyrics from Tom Petty (the hotel, you’ll note, is in Reseda). In many ways, Lake Street Dive is the ideal Vintage Voltage band, taking old sounds and making them new with great musicianship and a certain reverence.

1. Little Maggie, Robert Plant

So why isn’t Lake Street Dive number one? Well, they almost were. But in the end, although they made old sounds feel new, Robert Plant and the Sensational Space-Shifters managed to make new sounds feel old and comfortable while still being innovative–a far more difficult task.

Anyone could rightly expect Plant to just retire at this point. He’s got plenty of cash and respect, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him–he’s restless in the best sense of the word. For this album, he’s gone for an English folk/West African/blues sound with touches of electronic music. Just let that sink that in. There is no way that should work, but Plant and his band manage to find the commonalities between the styles and fuse them into this captivating blend that doesn’t seem to fully belong to either past or present, to one side of the Atlantic or the other.

“Little Maggie,” though not one of the singles, is the clearest expression of this sound, I think. It’s a traditional folk tune, but there’s pentatonic riffs played by banjo and doubled on a West African instrument called a khalam. The things that sound like fiddle breaks are played on a riti, another African instrument. And then there’s the pulsing synth bass. It’s almost too complicated for me to explain, so just hit the link. It’s like nothing else you’ll hear this year.

I can understand why Plant ripped up the Led Zeppelin reunion contract a month or two ago—while Jimmy Page acts as custodian, Plant is not done growing.

That’s it for another year, y’all. Thanks for reading–hope you found something to make it worthwhile. Best wishes for a safe and happy 2015.