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.

Song of the Week: Billets Doux, Django Reinhardt et Le Quintette du Hot Club de France

41w0kwyyawl-_sy300_

Scroll down to listen to “Billets Doux” by Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (opens in Spotify)

I’m almost certain there are no recordings of Django Reinhardt singing, but when he emerged on the jazz scene in the 1930s, he indisputably represented a new voice.

To understand how important he was, try to imagine what jazz looked like in the 1930s. Not only was it insanely popular dance music with a rebellious edge, like rock & roll or hip-hop later in the century, but it was almost exclusively played by Americans (generally African-Americans) wielding trumpets, trombones, and maybe pianos.

Reinhardt and his group, the Hot Club Quintette of France, turned all of this on its head. They didn’t have any horns, or even a piano. Instead, they had three guitars, an upright bass, and Stéphane Grapelli’s violin. They played relentlessly fast, catchy music with attitude and swagger—not meekly imitating American sounds, but boldly pioneering new ones. Their style of music—called “hot swing” or “gypsy jazz”—was the punk rock of the jazz world at the time, thanks to its relentless tempos, slightly contrarian attitude, and guitar-centric approach.

“Billets Doux” (“Love Letters,” in French), is a quintessential example of the group’s style. The first half of the song is a slow, danceable swing, with Reinhardt’s tasteful, sympathetic playing laid over top. But by 1:14, the tempo has cranked way up, and the group plays with an unbridled joy that I think is still palpable more than 50 years later. The speed of Reinhardt’s phrase at 1:25 is fast enough to make Van Halen think twice, and by the time Grapelli takes his solo, the group is swinging so hard that they being to rush the tempo a bit—a classic symptom of excited, happy musicians. If you’re having a hard time understanding what “swing” is, listen to the backgrounds around the 2:00 mark: the rhythm has an unbalanced momentum to it, pushing relentlessly but happily forward. That was Django Reinhardt in a nutshell.

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

blaze-cold

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.

Song of the Week: I Misunderstood, Richard Thompson

71mffl2kntl-_sx355_Scroll Down to Listen to “I Misunderstood” (Opens in Spotify)

Breakups are what keep songwriters in business. It’s a universal theme that can be mined for pathos, empathy, and sometimes dark humor. But most musical breakups are stereotypical, abstracted events—it’s hard to imagine them happening to real people. Of course, a certain amount of generality permits a variety of different listeners to see themselves in a song, but many breakup songs are so vague as to squash any emotional resonance whatsoever.

Part of the problem may be that songwriters are reluctant to place themselves too squarely under the microscope. Richard Thompson, luckily, is not. “I Misunderstood” is a breakup song about real people, who send mixed messages and change their minds. It carries the uncomfortable weight of real experience, and sounds like a human being wrote it, rather than an anodyne hit machine.

For me, the emotional crux comes at the end of the first verse into the first chorus:

“She was laughing as she brushed my cheek/ ‘why don’t you call me, angel, maybe next week/Promise now cross your heart and hope to die//But I misunderstood/I thought she was saying good luck/she was saying goodbye.” As Thompson repeats the refrain, you can feel the protagonist reeling from the shock of this new revelation.

Writing good material is only half the battle—you have to be able to interpret it well too. Thompson’s rich voice carries shock and a rueful smile, and his guitar playing is unusually understated but always harmonically interesting, from the main hook (a play on the so-called “Asian riff”) to the thumping, dark chord progression. Would that every breakup song was this good—but not every breakup.

 

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!