Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son: Rick’s Quick Takes

Even allowing for occasional brushes with fame — playing with Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones in the 1960s, making the very first digitally recorded pop album (1979’s Bop Till You Drop), producing the worldwide smash Buena Vista Social Club — Ry Cooder has steadfastly remained below the radar over five decades.  Occasionally though, he resurfaces with his trademark blend of Americana: plenty of space in the irresistible groove; tasty instrumental interplay; rich harmony vocals carrying an idiosyncratic, pungent lyrical message.

Cooder’s first album in six years, The Prodigal Son, is a welcome return to basics.  With the exotic decorations and oddball concepts of recent albums stripped away,  Cooder plays almost all the instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass and keyboard); his son Joachim co-produces and mans the drums.  The genre focus is narrowed too, zooming in on vernacular gospel by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and William Dawson.  As Cooder told MOJO magazine,

“Gospel is the best music to sing.  When you sing it and play it, I always felt you go to some other place physically and emotionally … Maybe age has got something to do with that.  You live through certain experiences, you keep looking for something, and maybe you’ll find it.  I think I have.”

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soundstreamsunday #102: “Kiss It Off” by Little Feat

little feat2On the other side of the 70s country rock that made the Eagles fabulously famous and rich — and drove them eventually to a dark funk that produced songs like “Those Shoes” — dwells Little Feat, emerging from the Zappa/Beefheart camp of SoCal weirdness during the same period, with funky desperate darkness fully intact from the get-go.  Theirs was an American vernacular progressive rock, full of smarts and awareness, and as led by guitarist and singer Lowell George (fired as “a favor” by Zappa, who then helped him get a Warners record contract since George was a talent, no doubt), they were the rock and roll revolution from the inside, the real throwdown at the hoedown.

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“A song to the stars…” The progressive folk of Honeysuckle

honeysuckle album

Like Thelonious Monk, I like everything. But a little bit of everything — not everything of everything. Within about 30 seconds to a minute of hearing a track someone is “showing” me for the first time I decide whether I’ll invest time exploring the artist.

The other evening I was reading an article while my wife was listening on her phone to a band that had appeared earlier that day on the WDVX (Knoxville, TN) Blue Plate Special. Twelve seconds into “Deep Blue Eyes,” I heard what I figured to be the familiar affectation of a young contralto voice. “No. No, no. Not another hipster band.” Already, my mind was conjuring images of the group — bearded men with goofy hats and suspenders; she, probably wearing some 1920’s floral print with loud lipstick and hairstyle to match.

At 47 seconds, however, something unusual happened with the mandolin. It climbed the scale, ripping open an attic of dense harmonies. The driving instrumental break, pausing to get its breath before again lunging forward, signaled something beyond my first impression.

I don’t know
Which way we are being pulled
But the stars are sewn into the sky
To guide us on our way

And then, “Down, down, below the waves…” By the 2:20 mark I had minimized whatever forgotten article I was reading and was Googling, “…who is this, honey?” “A band called Honeysuckle.”

My sincerest apologies to Holly McGarry, Benjamin Burns, and Chris Bloniarz for my prejudice. I promise that when you guys come back down South we will be there in the front row to see you.

Catacombs (Oct ’17) is the latest release from this Boston-based trio. How did I miss them? Liking everything sometimes devolves into too much time around the fringes: not bluegrass but traditional bluegrass; not progressive music but proto-prog, etc. Traveling the gaps are artists that pull together everything you love with unexpected dash and capacity.

Honeysuckle play traditional folk instruments (guitar, banjo, mandolin) with a jazz rock intensity and chiseled focus. The wordless vocals of “Constellations” might put one in mind of Fleet Foxes; but the musicianship is so staid and majestic that it takes wing under its own power, without an updraft of reverb.

The title track features a fusionist breakdown, introduced by a riff reprised at the end of an atonal final chorus that swirls like angry hornets. “Watershed” has a complex cadence and vocal delivery that would be at home on Tull’s Stand Up. “Chipping Away the Paint” recapitulates and expands on the themes introduced in “Constellation” and “Catacombs,” with bits of “Deep Blue Eyes” linked by a psychedelic jam and — what’s this? — a throbbing electric guitar riff. A sign of things to come? [Update: the band informed us that it’s actually the mandolin with heavy pedal effects]

Okay, maybe the brief whistling on “Greenline” is just a tad hipstery. But for those who ramble on toward Proghalla this track, like the rest of Catacombs, points out an inviting, picturesque path under familiar and constant stars. One definitely worth exploring.

From Honeysuckle’s living room, the title track…

soundstreamsunday #85: “Oil on Panel” by Wovenhand

wovenhandconcertLike Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes — last week’s soundstreamsunday entry — David Eugene Edwards brings to American folk, rock, and country an utterly unique, instantly recognizable voice.  Unlike Pecknold, Edwards toils in relative obscurity, which is a shame, as for the last 20 years he’s brought a wide-eyed intelligence to songs extending darker traditional themes, shimmering with christian imagery, to bracing goth soundscapes.  While you could make favorable comparison of Edwards’ bands, Denver’s 16 Horsepower and Wovenhand, to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, the better starting point, should we need it, might be Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or perhaps the old testament.  Or Carravagio.  With a voice both commanding and vulnerable, Edwards brings to his arrangements sonic chiaroscuro, breathing life, momentum, and dimension across acoustic and electric instrumentation tuned to his songs’ subjects.  Compositionally, he is a painter looking, I think, for balance, perhaps reflecting his relationship with his faith.

“Oil on Panel” is from Wovenhand’s third album, 2004’s Consider the Birds.  Referencing the act of painting, three of the deadly sins, Roma, and Yeshua, the song captures the direction Wovenhand was charting as it set out in the early aughts, into-the-christian mystic, highly refined, mannered, powerful.  With a windy, buzzy ambience overlayed with piano and distant strings, the song blossoms into near-orchestral grandeur halfway through, Edwards telling a story heavy with images invoking less a narrative than a feeling, of being unmoored, freighted with guilt but defined by faith.  If the edges bleed it is not without purpose.  “I paint them roughly, I paint them in my sleep.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

*Image of Wovenhand in concert by Colin Gentile, 2015.

soundstreamsunday: “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers

billwithers.jpgWhere Randy Newman and John Prine brought hyper-literate character study to the singer-songwriter genre, often inhabiting in the first person the figures they constructed in song, Bill Withers went for the emotional jugular, unabashed, and if there was any character being studied it was him.  Withers’ warm, supple voice, steeped in rhythm and blues and country, was his listeners’ point of entry, a vehicle in and of itself for delivering the musical goods.  Born in 1938, by the time he released his first record Withers was 33, had spent a decade in the service, and was working a factory job so soul-killing that a guitar and an empty notebook seemed as good a possibility as any for a better life.  His age helped him make records glowing with self-assured performances, and he became an unlikely pop star.  The hits came with that first record and kept coming through the 1970s.  By the time he did the unthinkable and retired in 1985, Withers’ legacy included some of the best American songs ever recorded: “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Grandma’s Hands,” “Lovely Day,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Lean on Me.”

“Lean on Me” is kind of like “The Weight” by the Band — it’s almost hard to believe that an earthly person actually wrote a song so integral to the late 20th-century American experience.  There is a grandeur to it, musically, lyrically, and sentimentally, that, even in its ubiquity, still shines.  It hit number one in 1972, but didn’t do all the heavy lifting to raise 1972’s Still Bill to number four, packed as that album is with great songs and arrangements popping with gospel funk dynamics.  In its album context, closing side one of the LP, “Lean on Me” is a beautiful respite from the personal strife suggested in “Lonely Town (Lonely Street),” “Who is He (and What is He to You)?” and “Use Me.”  The song evens a delicate emotional balance, and as an affirmation of simple friendship, it’s the finest kind of pop music.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine

prine-on-couch-fca50a192d324d600e6f76c149c8061fdfeec145-s800-c85Successful Americana music hews a particularly demanding line.  It’s a “post” genre, looking to blues and oldtime musics as a starting point rather than an end, as a shared story for the getting-on-with of the next chapter.  To say the least, there’s a large margin for failure.  The masters of the form, like Randy Newman and Joe Henry and Leyla McCalla, offer an unaffected, plain spoken drive to the heart of an America that is in its essence a crossroads.  In such hands it goes far beyond a romance of sepia-tinged dustbowl-era hardscrabble, the sharecropper’s plow and his wife’s gingham print dress.  It is the common song and in it is America.

John Prine didn’t set out to do it, since as a genre it wasn’t really acknowledged until relatively recently, but he put flesh and bone to Americana songwriting.  Equal parts humor, sadness, and frank talk as broad as its landscape, the pictures in his songs are drawn, I think, from the same kind of middle-of-the-country upbringing that so imprinted itself on Mark Twain.  One of those songs, “Paradise,” from Prine’s 1971 debut, made its way to me as a tune John Denver covered on his 1972 album Rocky Mountain High.  Which was the first album I ever owned, so that when I was six I knew that John Prine, credited on the sleeve, had written one of my favorite songs.  Paradise was “where the air smelled like snakes, and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”  How the air smells like snakes I don’t know but I know what he’s getting at somehow — it’s the kind of thing a guy from Missouri or Kentucky who grew up when Prine did would say.

“Angel from Montgomery” is Prine’s loveliest melody, but not necessarily as it’s sung by him.  It’s been covered countless times, but it seems to be at its tuneful best if the singer is a woman, perhaps because its narrator is female.  So Bonnie Raitt’s version is the go-to, and Susan Tedeschi is its current champion (following Raitt’s interpretation).  But in these remarkable and wonderful tributes to Prine and his songwriting, what is absent is the charming gruffness Prine brings to the role play, and as recorded on that first record, an approach that is more gospel soul than sweet country ode.  On an album absolutely loaded with outstanding songs, Prine goes with the piano and organ and the churchy atmospherics because this is a song about a tested faith, where things could’ve turned out differently, and would have, “if dreams were lightning, and thunder was desire.”

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.

soundstreamsunday: “State Trooper” by Bruce Springsteen

bruce_springsteen - EditedIn 2014, Bruce Springsteen covered Suicide‘s “Dream Baby Dream” on his album High Hopes, revealing common roots among artists you wouldn’t normally associate, and further illustrating Springsteen’s connections to the New York art punk scene of the mid and late 70s.  His association with Patti Smith, through her interpretation of “Because the Night,” cross-pollinated rock and punk in a critical cultural moment.  Then in 1980 Springsteen and Alan Vega of Suicide struck up a friendship while both were recording their respective albums in NYC, and he lent Suicide much-needed support when their second album elicited nothing but stony silence from their label execs.  He later likened Vega’s voice, admiringly, to an exhumed Elvis.  Springsteen’s rise to bona-fide-and-sanctified rock star in the mid 80s tends to mask that his rock and roll roots were essentially punk, street, to the degree that the nickname he earned early on in his career never sat well with him.  He read in Elvis and the Sun brethren an unseating of authority.  He was seduced, romanced by rock’s exalting of the everyman, and he built his songs from a society of sympathetic blue collar and rural down’n’outs that appeared fully sketched on record.  This was and is his art.

“State Trooper” from Springsteen’s Nebraska (1982) most immediately links his work and Suicide’s, the acoustic blues rock stutter as lean as the song’s words, here exercised in relative economy (compared to, say, “Thunder Road” or “Blinded by the Light,” or, god forbid, “Rosalita”).  The lo-fi slapback echo combined with the aesthetic of the cassette multitrack Springsteen was experimenting with to make demos — which he then decided to release rather than flesh-out with his E Street partners — smacks strongly of cheap electronic processing and a reaching towards Suicide’s elemental synthesizer rock.

Both Springsteen and Vega were writing characters deeply steeped in rock’s first wave, but the innuendo is gone, so that Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop and the first person of “State Trooper” — who’s holding on to that thing that’s “been bothering me my whole life” — share a spinning endgame.  “Mister State Trooper, please don’t stop me…” is a plea to limit the damage that’s grown out of control, the high-pitched yawp at the conclusion, overloading the mic and my circuits, forever linking Springsteen and Suicide in a stylistic rock’n’roll entirety consisting of a road, a car, probably a gun, and not much time.

soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section.