Acoustic Music on Youtube: Imagine Dragons and Three Years Later

It has been a full year since the first time I heard “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons. And although part of me wants to reject the band because of their popularity (and, yes, that is the less mature part of me, I think) I can’t stop liking the song or enjoying different renditions of it.  A great deal of this has to do with the new memories I have gained in conjunction with this song. And most of this has to do with whom the memories surround

My three-year old daughter keeps asking for this song. Even a year after she first heard it, she loves it–especially this acoustic version. And a few weeks ago, while listening to the lyrics and watching her and my son sing along, I was completely undone. Because, you know, its the undoing time of year.

I don’t want to be the guy who spends the same night (or series of nights) every year tipping back drinks in honor of what has been lost.  I don’t want the end of January to be a black hole on the calender. I want to fill the year with new memories, to graft skin over the scar tissue in some pathetic search for normalcy. But, the scar tissue is never truly gone, is it?

This isn’t going to be another maudlin entry about what it has been like to pass another year without our father.  I have accomplished that far too many times. The people we live with and then without are the ghosts who accompany us to our own graves. We see them in our faces in the mirror, in furniture and objects around the room, in the simple action of turning over the soil from winter for the new spring. The act of living needs death for its meaning(s). But, as my brother said today, it is through living well that we honor the dead.

Yes, another year has past since the untimely death of our infuriating, irascible, inimitable, and beloved father. This year I did my best to be somewhere different (Washington, DC) doing different things. But as the day and the week goes by, he’ll be in my thoughts. He is almost every time I look into his grandchildren’s faces.

And this is the way of things.

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The Cover Song: Repetition. Imitation. Innovation.

“The author is a modern character, no doubt produced by our society…discovering the prestige of the individual, or, as we say more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence, it is logical that in literary matters it should be positivism, crown and conclusion of capitalist ideology, which has granted the greatest importance to the author’s “person.”” – Roland Barthes (from The Death of the Author)
Nihil sub sole novum, Ecclesiastes

Years ago a roommate (the Historian) and I got in a furious argument about Lauryn Hill’s cover of Frankie Valli’s 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (a ‘hidden’ track on the U.S. release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)). The Historian lamented both the lack of originality and the lameness of the cover in comparison to the ‘original’. Now, apart from the fact that Valli didn’t even write the song (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio did, which complicates any claim of originality), Hill’s version, far from being a slavish imitation, is, I contended, a unique and worthwhile exercise that reflects her musical genre and time period and also enters into a long-standing tradition in art and literature. By updating the old, she created something new. And, as I added as an afterthought, originality is a false premise to begin with.

While my roommate retreated from his extreme “only the original and unique is good” position, he did not, lamentably, learn to love Hill’s version of the song. He has, however, come to see the importance of the cover song in popular music. Music is one area where we cherish repetition and imitation. Classical music and opera constantly revisit familiar territory; Jazz performance is built on a foundation of standards; Rap and Hip Hop made sampling at modern art form; and the history of Rock n’ Roll has the cover song as a staple of any new artist’s introduction.

Indeed, early canonical artists like Elvis and the Beatles were, at the beginning, cover artists (of course, some of this has to do with commercial viability; the rest of this has to do with re-packaging black music for white audiences). Anyone who has been in a band knows that you need cover songs to keep people listening to you and that learning and performing them is an essential part of musical and artistic development.

Somewhere along the way the cover song tarnished a bit. I suspect that part of this is a modern hang-up about “authorship” and “texts”; I suspect even further that once popular music was transported from its performance context where ‘authority’ resides in the current iteration (the performance) of the song rather than some dusty and fixed constant we started to be confused about its status.

Bear with me on this one. In classical music performances and live jazz shows, the money is for the performers—the commodity is in the moment. Since the dominant form of popular music has conventionally been the single played by the DJ and bought at the record store, the commodity is the fixed ‘text’ rather than the live performance or even the ‘transcript’ of the live performance. So, one explanation for the denigration of the cover song is that technological and cultural change facilitated a move away from a performance culture to prize the fixed recording instead.

Another explanation, and this one may be even more of a stretch, is that culturally we prize originality in artistic production because we overvalue ‘genius’. Some explanations for this phenomenon that I have encountered suggest that in a Christianized world we have followed the analogy author : text :: God : creation and that this implicit analogy has led us to devalue reinvention and repetition in favor of the divine original genius model. Another idea is that in a culture that so thoroughly praises the work of individual geniuses rather than the collective forces of human society, there is a certain psychological pressure on individuals to believe in this notion of ‘the genius’ with the secret and desperate hope that they might be one.

In truth, even the most innovative work is built on something that came before. In the ancient world, this idea permeates poetry. Telemachus claims in Homer’s Odyssey that men are always searching after the newest song—implying in some way that his song is new even as it builds on conventional and inherited language and motifs. In accepting a traditional form but claiming a different spirit, the Augustan poet Horace famously describes his poetry as “Roman wine in a Greek vase”. Imitation takes so many forms and is, like repetition, essentially paradoxical. By occurring in a different time, by having the ‘original’ behind it and in the mind of the observer/audience, a copy is never just a copy. The old is already something new. And nothing is ever truly new.

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Blackberry Smoke: Awesome or Average?

It sounds like Skynyrd and good 80’s country….not a bad thing as long as it’s more Dwight Yoakam than George Strait.  We learned to play this song and it’s my favorite so by the group.  The progenitors of southern rock were the Allman Brothers Band and you can certainly hear that influence in this song, the solo specifically.  Also, damn does the lead singer have some serious side burns. 

Blackberry Smoke is from Atlanta, Georgia and the man with the burns is Charlie Starr, an excellent guitar player and front man. I go between really liking this band and thinking that they sound too much like modern country (which I hate). I’ve mentioned my love of honky tonk many times and I still listen to artists like Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Sr. and Hank3 on the regular. I’m trying to find new bands I dig in any genre so I can start going to see live shows again more regularly. My band decided to all go see this band two weeks from today and, although I like a lot of what I hear from them, I am not completely sold.

Their covers, however, are basically amazing through and through so here’s a great example.

I think everyone who likes country of yesteryear likes George Jones, “the Possum”.  He passed away last April and his legacy will never die. “White Lightning” is one of his more famous songs and I think nearly everyone can agree that the occasional foray into moonshine is a good thing.

I think there is a real void in southern rock right now and a general lack of respect for it.  J. Roddy Walston and the Business come from the south, but are not what I would consider Southern Rock (but obviously they are still amazing).  Skynyrd has come to represent Southern conservatism and I believe that would make the late singer Ronnie Van Zandt roll in his grave. They toured a few years back for their album God and Guns which has a lot of thematic material on the loss of roots in America and things of that nature. I live in a small town in America and I feel the roots are deepening with the economic disparity. Also, they seem to forget the hippie leanings of the original incantation of the band and even the 70’s era song “Saturday Night Special” which suggests destroying all handguns because of their lack of application beyond murder, but I digress.

The Only D mentioned Manchester Orchestra as a possible Southern Rock band a while back and this song is not unlike a song such as “On the Hunt” from 70’s era Skynyrd.

I only hear a little Southern Rock influence in here, but a lot of excellent grunge motifs with a slice of down home Georgia grit.  Smoke is a lot more southern rock than these guys, but I can see some trappings of Southern musical sensibilities.  I will probably spend some time with this band and I thank you for the tip Only D.

I saw Blackberry Smoke on the Palladia live music channel playing at the Georgia Theater and that is how I learned who they were. I sat and watched the entire show, even recording it. The recording remains on my DVR list two years later and I still pick out tracks like the first one to listen to all the time. This band has the look of the third generation Allman Brother offspring and a sound that is country enough for Kenny Chesney fans and Outlaws enough for my tastes. They have some sweet slide solos as well as great guitar harmonies and a talented keys player with a solid rhythm section. Their sound dynamics are great and judging from their video, their live show will be fun.

This is like an exact homage to early 70’s Allman Brothers and Skynyrd and sounds almost perfect to my ears. Literally,  I hear parts of “Blue Sky” in there in the middle.  Lots of time to groove over to the beer tent and still be back for the second half of the song too.

More importantly, their live show seems great from the video and I think it’ll be a great time watching them. I think a band’s stage presence is equally if not more important than anything they record. I mentioned just recently, while confessing my love for J. Roddy, that I like the Rolling Stones more than the Beatles because the former has toured for most of their career while the latter hung up their live show spurs in the mid 1960’s after playing shows where the screaming fans made the music nearly impossible to hear.  You can have a band that produces true works of art in the studio, but if they can’t recreate it live, that’s a big turn-off for me. Kurt Cobain took special pains to not do a lot of overdubs while making Nevermind so they could still play all the jams out.

This sounds very much like the old country music I love and  references bourbon which I also love.

The music I’ve heard by this band is pretty good and I think their live show will sell me on whether I think they are highly average or awesome. I am going with the lead singer and lead guitarist in my band. It’s the first time we have all gone to see a show together since Waylon Speed and I’m really looking forward to it. My days of going to see shows all the time have been gone for a while and I think if I want to push my band forward and my musical tastes, I need to start doing this again. Thus,  I will provide you a full report of the Blackberry Smoke experience after I go and will leave you with a cover by them of quite possibly my favorite song by Willie Nelson.

The lead singer does repeat himself here and it must be a recording era, but you get the point that this song is great. I love the pedal steel and I wish they had it all the time.  They do an equally good job with honky tonk country as they do with southern rock. I hope this show has a lot of ladies who love country AND southern rock, I think we’d get along great.

Radio XXX, side B, track 11: “Like A Prayer” by Madonna

700 posts before Madonna, a crime against humanity.

(It only took me around 300…)

This is by far Madonna’s best song and one of the greatest songs of the decade. My college band used to cover this (we were all guys) and even though we probably sounded terrible when we did it, everyone loved it–because this is such a great song.

Mixed Tape Masterpiece

Madonna - Like a PrayerOh, Madonna, can you believe it’s taken nearly 700 posts and almost 30 cassette tapes before we got to a song by you?  I know, right?  Well, it’s worth the wait, because of all your songs, this is still my favorite.  Maybe it’s because of the gospel choir in it.  Maybe it’s because it was when you were wearing your hair dark and I reeaally liked it like that, or maybe, just maybe, it’s because this is one of the best songs ever made.

I remember all the fuss around this particular song because Pepsi decided to use this to try to sell some soda (or pop, as I called it back then), except they didn’t think about the fact that your video and stage act for this song involved things like burning crosses and seducing a priest.  And Madonna, shilling for Pepsi?  Really?  Don’t get me wrong, Madonna…

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On the Radio (Flashback): Blu Cantrell vs. Shaggy

The other day I was in the gym and I was suddenly pulled back sweating through time to 2001 by the music video for Blue Cantrell’s record “Hit ’em Up Style”. Back in 2001, I also heard this song regularly at a gym (the only place I encountered mainstream music for a while) and I remember this song being in almost constant rotation on MTV (you know, when the channel played music) and the Canadian rival, Much Music, or whatever it was.

Blu Cantrell taught us how to hit ’em up in 2001

I was never confused about the basic issue of the song–men who cheat are dogs and deserve some type of punishment–but I was never quite sure about the concluding message which I guess is something like, hey, men who cheat are dogs–but make sure you get into their bank account before you say farewell.

The song is, admittedly, catchy, but I think I kept staring at the screen because (1) Blu is cute and (2) I was always confused about whether the song amounted to some type of female-empowerment rally call or merely just a reinforcement of some of the same gendered stereotypes. In the first interpretation men cheat and women suffer but at least women get something out of it in the end.  In the second, well, female ‘labor’ or value is still communicated in terms of material goods and men still do what they want they just pay for it (with material goods). Is the empowered Cantrell fan in any sense free or equal to the man? Who still has the power?

Of course, in my mind at the time, the song was in dialogue with the previous year’s heinous but catchy and inescapable hit, “It wasn’t Me” by Shaggy:

Shaggy, oh it was you. You created a new defense for cheaters in 2000.

In retrospect, Shaggy’s shrugging charm has no been rendered impossible by social media new technology. Honestly, I think that for Shaggy to be able to declare that it wasn’t him, he’d have to have a relationship that used no computers, email addresses or cell phones. And while I find Shaggy’s ‘aw shucks’ claim to not be a serial cheater somewhat repugnant (but less so than an entire population that made this song a hit), I do find the fact that we are now so much more the slaves to machines and software even more disturbing.

Now, I am not lamenting the loss of freedom to cheat, but the loss of freedom more generally. In my memory, the world was different when I heard these songs and even changed in between them. Shaggy’s song is the carefree insane optimism of the late 90s, when I was in college. It was a huge hit as I graduated. Blu Cantrell–rightly or not–reminds me of a reaction to the new pessimistic economy and the more vengeful world I knew after 9/11.

And both seem serenely naive now.

Favorite New Discovery: J. Roddy Walston and the Business

This doesn’t sound like a lot of the piano driven rock that J. Roddy and the Business is known for, but it is their newest single and a certifiable jam. It could just be my rudimentary knowledge of music, but it sounds like the main guitar hook was composed on a piano or at least would sound pretty cool played on one. Maybe even the tasty licks of a Hammond B-3 organ?

Right around my case of the Mondays and the subsequent breaking of my muffler, I got really into the Baltimore band J. Roddy Walston and the Business. I included them on my best of 2013 list and this wasn’t very accurate because I listened to them once back in the spring time and not again until the aforementioned. My friend who teaches science played them for me during an evening spent fishing and I recognized it embarrassingly from a shitty Mark Wahlberg movie I’d not finished watching during a rare day off. As always with me, my favorite thing about the band and what I find most striking is their incredibly unique sound. It’s a great mixture of old school Rock and Roll with the loud/soft dynamics of a grunge band ripping off The Pixies in an honest and ill way.

This has been my favorite song for weeks now. My favorite moment is when they harmonize on “like slavery she saidddd” and the subsequent marks that they hit those notes. I love this band because their heavy musical songs are amazing as well as these slower songs that depend on vocal delivery with minimal instrumentation. These are signs of a versatile band which whose recipe is awesome.

They actually not a new band at all and have been in existence since 2002. They hail from Baltimore, Maryland and within a month of moving to a house in that city, the lead singer was mugged at gun point. I guess The Wire was correct in its portrayal of the former murder capital of America, the illustrious title that has now been taken by Flint, Michigan, but I digress.

J Roddy grew up on a steady diet of gospel and country music interspersed with a love of Led Zeppelin,  the Rolling Stone’s Ian Stewart and the immortal Leon Russell.  The additional listening to glam rock superstars like T. Rex and obviously influenced by the grunge rock he couldn’t avoid in high school creates this amazing mixture of sounds that is totally unique. It’s been a long  and difficult road for this band, but I just heard the song that introduced this post from their new album on the local alternative rock station and I have a good feeling they are about to blow up.

This is a song that J. Roddy arranged after his Grandmother, loosely-related to the Grand Ole Opry, played him this song as a youth. It’s one of their first widely known tunes because it was used on an MTV show about cage fighting. The original title was something like “Sally Let your Bangs hang down” and has come pretty clear sexual connotations so I find it quite humorous that his elderly relative played him the song. This is my least favorite of his work I’ve heard, although still awesome and indicative of where they started.

For the last ten years, the band has traveled around the country playing music in a Church van they have dubbed “the Diaper” because it’s “big, white and carries all their shit”. They even left the name of the Church painted on the side of the rig in the hopes that it will lesson the chances that they get pulled over.  J. Roddy transports a 300 pound Yamaha traveling piano on tour, saying ” I play piano. You’d never see a guitar player playing a keytar”. Their reputation has been built on an energetic live show that the New York Times said made “James Brown look lazy”. At one show on a boat in New York, J. Roddy got so fired up that he ended his set by throwing his piano stool out a window, narrowly missing a bystander before it crashed into the East River. They are road warriors, through and through, and no sign of 1920’s style clothing.

This song is another prime example of the loud/soft dynamics I mentioned early as well as a very vintage feel in both the sleazy Exile on Main Street rhythms and epic yet succinct guitar solos. Ok, they got going a little bit live here, but it’s a sweet jam so it’s ok. By the way, this performance is from Lebowski fest which they played this year and it makes me think that perhaps the Elder and I should write a post about our varying opinions on the film using the indisputably awesome sound track.

In an age where everyone steals samples, identities, and styles from everyone else, it’s refreshing to find a band that wears their influences on their sleeves while still forging their own sound/style. I read some reviews of their concerts online and the common thread seems to be that their shows are amazing and most people did not expect the balls to the wall rock of the band when they opened up for the Lumineers on tour. People went expecting this pseudo-bluegrass folk music and saw this badass band open up instead, which is probably why they’ve been gaining some exposure. I know the live show of a band is a huge part of how good I think they are and a major point of argument on why I think the Rolling Stones are a better band than the Beatles, but I digress again.

This is such an obvious nod to the blues-rock crunch of the Stones and Zeppelin  great enough that it deserves the comparison. I didn’t even know the band had a song with slide guitar! 

I need to see this band live. There’s no tour date in the far Northeast yet, unless Rochester, NY counts and it doesn’t, but I’m sure the radio play of “Heavy Bells” will bring them at least to Boston in this calendar year. I will gather up troops and head down 95 to see this band and I hope this post has helped in some small way to spread the sheer awesomeness that is J. Roddy Walston and the Business. I really hope the Elder J likes this band because hopefully I am headed south in a few weeks to visit him and if things progress as they have, I’ll still be listening to this band non-stop. So crank these tunes up this morning and jam hard to Mr. Walston. Rock and Roll will never die as long as bands like this keep grinding on the road and keeping it real in the studio.

A great enough jam that I don’t care that I’ve included it in at least one other post, probably two. Go see this band, buy their record, and wile out when you hear them.

Radio XXX, side B, track 4: “Stand” by R.E.M.

R.E.M is one of those bands that were ubiquitous for a while (at least in my life) but which no one now really likes. I do hear “Losing my Religion” at times and “Stand”, but R.E.M had several albums with alt-radio hits after “Automatic for the People”. What happened?

Mixed Tape Masterpiece

R.E.M. - StandOh, R.E.M., so great to hear this one again!  I was pretty enamored with this song back in the day, and no mystery why, since it’s all kinds of awesome.  And super fast, too, am I right, R.E.M.?  I’m sitting there singing along to it and it’s over before it even started.  It’s truly a song that leaves you wanting more of it, and probably explains why I taped it off the radio more than once.

But as I was listening to it, it did remind me that when the zombie and/or robot apocalypse comes, I’ll be one of the first to go.  Because I lack some very basic survival skills, R.E.M.  Like facing north.  Or facing west.  I THINK I know where north is right now, maybe kinda.  I’ll tell you that when I was a kid, I had absolutely no concept of directions.  When I was…

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