Wednesday, October 05, 2005

[random][music] Delta punk

(updated 15-Oct-05, here) There's a shitstorm brewing in the larger world, and, well... I don't feel like writing about it. My thoughts aren't coherent enough to be worth sharing as of yet, so until something worthwhile coalesces, you're going to have to put up with my ramblings about music. Ever since the mid '80s, I've been fascinated by the idea of fusing traditional music with rock 'n' roll. Not folk rock per se, but hard, kick-ass rock. What crystallized this for me was Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, largely overlooked by much of the sf/f community, and now (sadly, IMO) mostly marketed as juvenile fantasy instead of adult. It's great urban fantasy, with Celtic fey forces coming to life to do battle... in modern Minneapolis. Okay, it's not the strongest premise when phrased like that, but it's a hell of a story nonetheless. The shidhe need music to do battle - and they need to recruit human musicians for that role, otherwise no one will die in combat. Bull's prose manages to evoke the best of dirty, sweaty, smoky punk rock melded with bardic melodies - and it becomes pure musical magic in this book. Ever since, I've been looking for this combination, largely to no avail. I'm a huge fan of Jethro Tull, for instance; their albums Broadsword and the Beast and Songs from the Woods meld traditional melodies with rock instruments to good effect - but not quite. And the quasi-Tull side project Fairport Convention, which stays closer to the traditional side of things, falls much more firmly into the realm of folk rock. I've bought albums by Boiled in Lead, the band that largely inspired War for the Oaks - and they too, while fun to listen to, fall short (for me) of the wonder and magic of the book. It's the great divide between specification and implementation, right? I've tried Rare Air, Clannad, Lorenna McKinnet, Dead Can Dance, Delerium, Deep Forest - to no avail. I've liked all of them, more or less, but none of them have met that idealized standard that I formed way back when. It's funny how Renaissance, Medieval & Gregorian seem to work better with harder rock, which is where my tastes lie. But for folk...? Dance and electronica? Sure. Black leather and studs punk? Not so much. Still, I haven't stopped looking - it's been a lot of fun. I've made a point of seeking out unconventional combinations of 'traditional' music forms with harder rock, and as a result I've found a lot of bands that I now enjoy. Some have been real clunkers, but most have been quite good - and even the best of them fall short of what I created in my mind oh those many years ago. So it was with great pleasure that I stumbled across a Minnesota-based band that did punk blues. Not rockabilly or psychobilly, but punk-rock-blues. I like punk (duh!), I like the blues - how cool could that be? I liked the samples and videos on their website, so I ordered their latest album. After many travails detailed elsewhere, I FINALLY HAVE IT. And without further ado, here are my thoughts on the Blackeyed Snakes' album Rise Up!. First, the cover & album art: instead of your standard jewel box, BeS opted for a heavy paperstock cover. It's a little thinner than a regular jewel case, and as a result feels a little less substantial, a little flimsier than a plastic case. Still, no real points lost here. And the art is pretty good: it's a murky black faux naive or folk-primitive painting depicting a Pancho Villa-esque skeleton astride a horse, surrounded by pale robed figures that could be acolytes or ghosts or more skeletons. In the background, there are decapitated heads stuck atop poles. Taken together, is it revolution or is it the dead coming to life? Either interpretation fits with the album title, so I'd give the whole package a thumbs up. On to the music... Let's be straight up: this album will probably displease traditionalists of either camp, punk or blues. It feels like a harsher, less-polished version of, say, Tull or Led Zepplin's early blues pieces. A post-punk sensibility runs through it, as well... These guys are aware that they're doing this thing, this band; it doesn't feel like something that happened once they started playing togehter - it feels like a bunch of guys were sitting around and said "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if..." and then made it so. This is not to say that it is a bad album - on the contrary, I quite liked it. But there are audible differences between the tracks mixed at their Duluth studio and the Chicago studio where the album was produced (the Chicago tracks sound crisper). The instrumentation and composition is strong - the music feels like the blues. The lead singer has a smoky, raspy, whiskey-drinking voice, and the effect used when recording vividly evokes an image of someone in a dark, sweaty club wailing into an old-fashioned microphone, a primitive Jazz Age 'phone or a streamlined chrome mike reminiscent of post-WW2 car grilles. In the live tracks (the videos on their site), it worked perfectly. In the studio tracks, it's a little disappointing once you realize that's the way it's going to be for the entire album. Also, while I don't expect any of them (or anyone connected to them) to ever read this review, I'd like to point out that part of the fun of the blues is the lyrics. There's clever wordplay and raunchy innuendo; there's poetry composed of real life tragedy and triumph along with the highs and lows of petty day-to-day living. And you get to hear none of that on this album. IMO, an insert with the lyrics would definitely have added a lot, and made the vocal effect less irritating. Eh, irritating is too strong a word. How about saying that the overall effect would have been a lot stronger, instead. A punk purist is going to be irked by the fact that, by choosing to play more faithfully to the blues idiom, some of the 'filth and fury' that make punk punk will be lost. If you're going to try and capture the feel of traditional blues, even if you play them through a punk filter, you're going to sound a lot more like Led Zepplin than, say, the Sex Pistols. Lest you think otherwise, I did like the album. I'd even recommend it (with a few caveats) to someone open-minded enough to grok how a punk blues band might be cool. If this sounds intriguing to you conceptually, I'd say go for it. I bought my copy through Amazon, but you can find it online, both used and new, for less than what I paid for it. [updated 15-Oct-05 11:45AM PDT: Okay, I'm at work right now, and being the only person in the office, I've got this puppy cranked over speakers instead of headphones and you know what? It sounds a lot better this way, sounding both punkier and bluesier... Cool! This kicks some serious ass! (back to top)]


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