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: Fight, No Vacancy

Click here to listen to “Fight,” by No Vacancy

School of Rock came out at just the right time in my life. In 2003 I was 11 and just starting to figure out what kind of music I was interested in independent of my parents’ taste (hence that Smash Mouth phase).

Seeing Jack Black evangelize to a group of kids around my age about the glory of Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Motorhead thus went directly to my head (and my mind…and my brain, too). When one of my friends got the soundtrack a month later for his birthday, it got passed around on our school bus like contraband until everyone had a copy.

That soundtrack—still in my top 5—contained a lot of musical firsts for me: first exposure to Zeppelin and first time hearing the Black Keys, among others. But that’s not the real gem on this album.

No, Dear Reader, the best song on that soundtrack is a song called “Fight,” by No Vacancy. No Vacancy, you’ll remember, is the band Jack Black gets kicked out of at the beginning of the film, and this is the song that plays right over the opening credits. As a creative act or piece of “art,” this song is probably closer to Spinal Tap than anything else–particularly the line “I hit a knock-out punch with this heartfelt song.” It does, however, flat-out RAWK, from Black’s incendiary David Lee Roth Lite vocals to the satisfying guitar chugs. Heavy, maan.

It’s remarkable that “Fight,” a track written by Jack Black and co-writer/co-star Mike White, hold its own amidst the Olympians of rock. I think it succeeds because everyone involved seems to have a real reverence for the music; this film, and this song, were not written by people who listen to Air Supply. So the song feels genuine, even though it was crafted for a completely fictional band.

Let’s rock, let’s rock, today.

 

 

Song of the Week: Beautiful Sorta, Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Click Here to Listen To “Beautiful Sorta,” by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals

Alright, listen. Everyone else worth a damn knew about Ryan Adams for years already—whether they liked him and his prodigious discography or not. Meanwhile, I was living under a rock. Never mind that I was 13 when this song came out. That’s no excuse!

But better a late start than nothing at all, I suppose. If you are one of the few people who, like me, wasn’t familiar with Adams until his self-titled album came out last year, let me say with certainty that this song, that album, and portions of his rambling back catalog, are exactly what you’re looking for. He’s a fine quiet songwriter when he wants to be, but I prefer hearing him going flat-out, like he does here. “Beautiful Sorta” is some grade-A, pesticide-free, artisanal rock & roll music.

The best musicians find ways to stand clichéd chord progressions on their head in such a way that they become something new, which is precisely what Adams does by stalling himself out in the middle of the standard blues shuffle guitar part. This spring-loads the introduction to pop right into the verses. Rock & roll has to have a relentlessness to it and Adams’ rhythm section understands this, helping to keep that initial energy throughout the track.

The short bridge at 2:14 gives you just enough time to catch your breath before you’re caught once more in this moment of pure musical catharsis.

Who cares if it sounds like they’re actually singing “beautiful soda?”

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.

Song of the Week: Février, Vincent Vallières

Click Here to listen to “Février,” by Vincent Vallières

Tonight, a legacy post from Turntablr, the spiritual predecessor to Vintage Voltage. And it’s only appropriate, given the winter we’ve had in the Northeast so far this year.

You know who knows about winter? People from Québec. They regularly get the kind of snow that would even make a penguin think twice, but rather then run away, they embrace it. This song, by French-Canadian pop singer Vincent Vallières, is a great example.

The name of the song translates as “February,” and the lyrics are sort of a free-wheeling association of all things wintery, from “February, little red nose/February, a bit drunk” to “February, lose your gloves/February, on skis.”

In three minutes, Vallières provides a great ode to “the little month that never ends” backed by strong handclaps and some random whooping. The song sounds like something he recorded in the midst of a booze-soaked night with a bunch of friends in a cabin—it sounds natural, and above all, fun. It’s an incredibly simple mix of musical elements that just works. There’s definitely a little sense of humor in the mix too: from the cough in the background at 0:35 that accompanies the lyric “Frileux et gripé” (roughly translated as “chilly and sick”) to the low whistle that sounds when Vallières mentions “le vent du nord” (“the north wind”) at 0:39.

Perhaps the reason why I enjoy this song so much is because I can actually understand the lyrics—it’s tough sometimes to appreciate songs in foreign languages, especially if you’re big into lyrics, although I hope you’ll get a kick out of this nonetheless.

Song of the Week: Jerry Girl, Deaf Pedestrians

Click here to listen to “Jerry Girl,” by Deaf Pedestrians

You know what cakes, onions, and great songs have in common? They all have layers. The best songs allow you to listen to them repeatedly and find something new every time, which I think is part of the appeal of a lot of Phil Spector’s work or the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album. Deaf Pedestrians may not be in quite that league, but they have something that those other groups didn’t: a wickedly dark sense of humor (as if the name wasn’t a tip-off).

“Jerry Girl” is first and foremost a great early 2000’s rock song. Listen to the bass tone on that intro, those perfect harmonics—sounds almost like a doorbell. The band particularly succeeds after the 2:53 mark, when the guitar tone dirties up and the background vocals kick in, pretty much guarenteeing that you’ll be singing along in the car.

Where we get into talk of layers, though, is on the lyrical side of things. Singer Charlton Parker’s 90’s-alternative delivery makes it tricky to understand the lyrics, but this actually works in his favor, as the listener will only decipher bits and pieces each time. There’s obviously some weird stuff going on, as that 30 second long intro makes clear (complete with what sounds like a drunk, pervy Boomhauer).

But it’s only after repeated listens that the song’s narrative emerges. Basically, the main character stalks a coworker—not, I think we can agree, an inherently funny premise—but he’s both thick-headed and so oblivious that it never quite works out: “When you say that you think that I’m a psychopath/do you mean it in the literal sense?/When you say that you wish that you had never met me/Does this mean we can’t be friends?”

That kind of subtle character work is what makes the song a keeper in my book. This was off of the group’s first EP, which is apparently so rare not even the internet has a picture of it. As far as I know, Deaf Pedestrians are still out there, and although subsequent releases still had some wit running through the lyrics, the humor mostly veered towards gross-out misogynist territory—witness their biggest hit “15 Beers Ago.”

Song of the Week: Strasbourg/Saint Denis, Roy Hargrove Quintet

Click Here to listen to “Strasbourg/Saint Denis,” by the Roy Hargrove Quintet

To any serious jazz fans, Roy Hargrove is old news. I wish I could say I’d been following him since he won his first Grammy in 1997, but that would be a lie—I couldn’t even spell “Grammy” at that point. He won another Grammy in 2002, but I was in a deep Smash Mouth phase at that age. Ahh, youth.

Thankfully, I discovered him in the past few years thanks to a dear friend in France, so all is not lost.

“Strasbourg/Saint-Denis,” named after a Paris métro stop that you shouldn’t visit after midnight if you don’t have to, puts Hargrove’s funky sensibility out front, with a slick, accessible piece of music.

The bass intro grooves from the beginning, and the instrument’s acoustic quality is captured beautifully, with plenty of space. The tricky drum entrance paves the way for the sax and trumpet to enter for the laid-back head, played in unison. Again, I think this recording really allows a novice listener to get a tonal understanding of the main instruments in jazz. When they switch to the upper register, the trumpet’s warm blat meshes nicely with the sax’s thinner, more melodic tone. There’s also some tricky muting going on in the piano solo, a neat tricky that amplifies the staccato nature of a lot of Gerald Clayton’s phrasing.

And while none of the individual performances are particularly surprising, the song has great feel and groove and hangs together as a comprehensive whole. It’s a textbook piece of quintet playing from fine musicians that is loaded with aural appeal—they didn’t call the album Earfood for nothin’—and worth a listen if you’re at all jazz-curious.