December 25, 2011

The gyroscope just keeps on spinning...

Jack White's been busy being brilliant again.  Actually, though, that's a misnomer, as the man seems to never stop being brilliant.  If you haven't been paying attention, it'd be easy to think he's not done anything since the end of last year's Dead Weather tour or this year's handful of shows with the Raconteurs but, in actuality, he's turned out a tremendous amount of music and records over the course of this year.  It just hasn't all been the sort to put him in the spotlight.

As far as newness in his own music goes, 2011 was a year of collaborations.  First released was the spaghetti western-inspired Rome, a five-year-in-the-making labor of love by Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, on which Jack contributed lyrics and vocals to three songs.  The lyrics are not a huge a stretch from what a dedicated White Stripes fans might be familiar with, but his vocals and the music they're paired with are quite a departure.

Next was the long-awaited release of The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a project begun by Bob Dylan roughly a decade ago.  In a turnaround from Rome, the musicians involved in this project were asked to write music for unfinished Williams lyrics and then perform on the album.  I've not yet listened to the entire record, but from what I have heard it doesn't seem that any of the other artists involved created anything as authentic as Jack did.

Most recent was a startling cover of U2's Love Is Blindness on the AHK-toong BAY-bi covers compilation, which I babbled about a couple months ago, but will post here again for the sake of comparison.

I'm struck every time I listen to these songs by the contrast between the delivery of them-- Not so much in the difference in style, but in how Jack chose to approach them.  In You Know That I Know, the "quiver and twang" in his voice and the distinctive pedal steel guitar in the music he wrote are a touchingly faithful recreation of Hank's style. He's done this sort of thing before, notably with the White Stripes' covers of Blind Willie McTell's Your Southern Can Is Mine and Lord Send Me An Angel, and Bob Dylan's One More Cup of Coffee and Isis, but not to quite this fine a degree.  In comparison, he took Love Is Blindness and ran miles away from U2's original to create something so much more extreme and intense, which, again, he also did with the Stripes on Dolly Parton's Jolene, Son House's Death Letter, and Robert Johnson's Stop Breaking Down (though he and Meg also did a slightly more faithful rendition of that one, as well).  And there's pretty much no way to compare the songs on Rome to anything he's done before.  When news leaks of things like this year's cover tunes and collaborations, the most exciting part of waiting to hear them is that there's just no telling what direction Jack will have taken.  It's fascinating to contemplate-- How does he make the decision each time?  Is it pure gut instinct based on a visceral reaction to the music?  Or does he actually thoughtfully consider the song and make conscious decisions? He spoke in a recent interview (that I now can't find) about problem-solving in relation to the business at his label, Third Man Records, of how he prefers to vary his own style from problem to problem rather than tackling every challenge that comes up from the same perspective, and that seems to also speak directly to how he approaches music.  

This same diversified approach is reflected in the output of the Blue and Green Series singles from Third Man, on which Jack steps into the background as producer.  This is where he's really been busy.  What's notable about these records aside from his astute production is that he personally searches out and contacts individuals with whom he feels he can create something new and inspiring.  With 33 releases in less than three years, these two series run a gamut that defines the word "eclectic"--  From relative unknowns like JEFF the Brotherhood, the Secret Sisters, and Chris Thiles, to actor John C. Reilly and 70's icon BP Fallon, Conan O'Brien and auctioneer Jerry King, Japanese girl group the and rapper Black Milk, to Carl Sagan and, controversially, Insane Clown Posse, the catalog of these two series is a blatant indication of just how wide-ranging Jack's interests and imagination run.  

The most recent of the Green Series singles has totally blown me away.  It features poet/actor/playwright, Edgar Oliver, whom Jack apparently noticed in an episode of the Discovery Channel's Oddities program. For his Third Man single, Oliver wrote and read a pair of poems-- In The Park and Hunger and Light.  While his voice, delivery, and poetry are certainly not necessarily everyone's cup of tea, they're right up my own eerie little alley.  A clip of the a-side, In The Park, can be heard at the Third Man Records on-line shop.  It's a gruesome yet lovely contemplation on the approach of death, read in a manner that summons up a delightfully daft combination of Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.  But the b-side, Hunger And Light, is the kicker.   

Recorded in Triple Reverse Cryptophonica™, it left me initially nonplussed at what sounded like nothing but gibberish.  I thought it would be great to listen to at Halloween, but it had no meaning for me beyond that.  

But then Third Man announced a contest promising a gold record of the single to the first person who could correctly interpret and transcribe the poem.  I had no clue of how to accomplish this, but there were plenty of other technologically-inclined audiophiles who took up the challenge.  When the results hit the internet, it left me giddy.  Whether Oliver's dark themes and creepy tone are appealing or not, the production of this piece is still a wonderment.  First, the single was pressed to physically play in reverse, from the inside run-out groove to the outer edge of the record  (which produces the sounds heard above). But by flipping the head of the turntable tonearm, it can be played in the normal direction of outer-to-inner edge, which creates the second reverse-- the direction of the sound.  But instead of hearing "Paul is dead" or some Satan-worshipping mumbo-jumbo like you'd hear if you played your records in reverse in the old days, you get this--

The final fantastic element is that Jack recorded Edgar reading the words in reverse order (as heard above).  Reversing things for a third and last time through transcription reveals the original poem—

Hunger and Light. I’m going in my sleep to the Galaxy Deli for a bacon and egg sandwich. I must cross daylight to get it. I went to the Galaxy Deli in my sleep. I crossed the Egyptian daylight on 3rd Avenue, fearing death at every step, but exalting in the sun on the mud in the street. This was not dreaming. I really crossed that Styx, and came back with two bacon and egg sandwiches, both for me and some for my cats, who are driven mad by the smell, as am I, of bacon and sunlight. The day, like a beautifully fried egg, sits coolly on a blue plate. Today is a blue plate special. I’ll go swimming around the rim and drown in my hunger. Sun sets a gold eye on a fly, hungry for everything glinting in the mud. It’s today in my dream. Cruelly today. Today I will eat the last bite.

Now that I'm able to comprehend it, I find it beautiful in every direction.  What leaves me most excited about it, though, is wondering how on earth Jack came up with the Triple Reverse idea.  How many people's minds work like that?  It's obvious that his brain is on a different plane than those of average individuals.  I've joked at one of the message boards dedicated to him that if you opened up his head, instead of a mass of grey matter like the rest of us have, you'd find a gyroscope spinning at breakneck speed, spitting out ideas like lightning.  Though the lightning image makes it more appropriate, probably, to compare Jack's brain to a Tesla coil like the one displayed on the roof of Third Man Records, or the one he showed off in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes--

Clearly, the spark gaps of the Tesla coil inside Jack's head have always been adjusted for overdrive performance and that's something for which we should all be thankful.  The music world would be a damned dull place without him in it.

Note: Bearing in mind how he seems to feel about his tangible creations being turned into internet ephemera, I debated for several days whether to post the videos and translation of Hunger And Light.  In the end, I decided it was worth risking Jack's displeasure in order to demonstrate to the few people who read this just how insanely creative he is.  If anyone affiliated with Third Man Records should happen to stumble across this and feel that it should be removed, by all means please let me know.

December 19, 2011

I'm gonna sing this song, An I ain't goin' to sing no mo'

Finally made the pilgrimage to Skip James' gravesite at the Merion Memorial Park outside of Philadelphia.  

Merion's a fairly small cemetery but it sprawls down a hillside, so I decided to make things easy on myself by asking in the office where to find Nehemiah James.  The two older white folks working the office couldn't seem to find him in their register, but when I mentioned he had been a musician also known as Skip James, a lightbulb went off.  They sent me back outside to ask one of the groundskeepers, a young, dreadlocked black guy who knew right away who I was talking about and who was very happy to walk down the hill with me, chatting along the way about blues music and what it's like to work in a cemetery full of Canada geese (and their droppings).  Then he left me alone to sit in front of Skip's headstone and smoke and think about the man, the music he made, and how he came to be buried in Pennsylvania rather than in some cypress grove in the Delta. 

Here's hoping you've been resting in more peace than you had in life, Skip.

December 18, 2011

Welcome to the "Middle of Everywhere"

Take a step back with me, would you please?  Back to a time several decades ago, a time that was both simple and yet, in many ways, every bit as complex as those we live in now.  It's a very easy time to romanticize.  The music of that era is very different from what's produced these days-- It's one of the simpler elements of those years and contributes mightily to that sheen of romance, but it's pretty well overlooked by a majority of today's contemporary music listeners.  There are a handful of artists out there, though, who not only appreciate this music but do everything they can to keep it alive and vital.  One of those groups is Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, and I'd like to introduce you to 'em.

I first heard of these fellas via the 7" single they cut for Third Man Records earlier this year--  A tune with the tongue-twisting title "Chitlin' Cookin' Time In Cheatham County", backed with the just as terrific "Pack It Up".  Their vintage look and traditional roots sound got me curious, but one particular recommendation from a conversation at a message board I frequent intrigued me even more-- "[Pokey] inhabits the authentic essence of the old music but carries it on with original lyrics and tunes. imagine alan lomax combining all the dna of american music and injecting it into this slight lad from south st louis..."  That's a kicker, folks.  Few people have done more to preserve and promote true American music than Alan Lomax did throughout his career, so the idea that this group could possibly distill the spirit of Lomax's work within their songs was compelling.  Think of the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" embodied by four very young men from St. Louis, Missouri, and you begin, just begin, to get the picture.

So I began reading about them and watching videos here and there (NPR, especially, has a terrific archive of Pokey and SC3 material).  I loved the idea of the group, but didn't quite connect.  Until, that is, I found out that they would be opening for the Raconteurs' first performance in three years at Third Man Records in Nashville in September--  I wanted badly to attend that show just to see the Racs, but had missed the tickets that sold out immediately.  Hemmed and hawed about spending a couple hundred dollars via eBay, plus the price of a plane ticket, and then heard that these guys would be the opening act.  They were the deciding factor, as my gut told me that this was a combination not to be missed.

Well, I'm happy to tell you, my gut was dead right.  Seeing this band live made all the difference in the world.  Their sound is one thing, but their performances are quite another.  They are consummately professional and meticulously talented, both smoothly polished and raucously fun at the same time.  Not to mention, endearing to a fault.  Pokey is a little guy with a huge voice, who plays rhythm on a beautiful old parlor guitar and occasionally hangs an amplified kazoo from his neck to add a snazzy accompaniment to various tunes.

Photo from

Ryan Koenig gives Pokey some serious competition for the spotlight on just about every tune, alternating entertainingly delivered accompanying vocals with some of the most intense harmonica going, then putting down his harp and strapping on his homemade washboard, complete with dishes and a bell, which is fascinating to watch.

Photo from

Photo from

The self-effacingly self-described "rhythm kings" of the band are Adam Hoskins on guitar and Joey Glynn on standup bass.  I'd never seen anyone play standup bass before this band and really looked forward to the experience. Checking out Joey's bass on the stage before the show began at Third Man, I wondered how the heck you got sound out of string like that-- The lower strings looked practically like twine.  When he started slapping away, I was spellbound by the thumping beat he created.

Photo by Corey Warner

But some of my favorite moments came from Adam Hoskins and his gorgeous vintage acoustic guitar.  When he jokingly referred to himself as one of the "rhythm kings" of the band, he was actually way off base.  He plays some of the most beautifully articulate guitar I've yet heard, with perfectly clean technique whether he's finger-picking notes or sliding a bottle-neck along the frets.  (And talk about endearing-- When I saw the band again, as described below, it was mentioned during the show that Adam had just bought himself a $3,000 vintage Gibson.  When I asked him about it afterward, I was struck by not only how eager he was to get it set up and be able to play it live, but also by his comment that it was the first guitar he'd bought himself with money that he'd earned by playing guitar. It was sweet to see just how gratifying this was for him.) 

Photo by Ryan Leith

So I came home from Nashville and immediately ordered a copy of their most recent record, Middle of Everywhere.  The album is terrific.  But, as fun and fantastic as the music is, the attitude behind it is what makes it real and significant, not just a campy bit of fluffy entertainment.  In the liner notes, Pokey talks about just what this style of music means to him--

...When jazz, blues and country took off early on, where the artists came from was as much of the music as the music itself,  that framework giving deep meaning and relevance to what they were saying and playing.  While the old music may have origins in regions and communities, it's been grabbed hold of and evolved as it's spread across America.  For me, the point is to find my place in this changing landscape and continue to express myself speaking the language of the old music while holding on to the roots.

It's that compulsion to keep this music alive rather than just to recreate it that makes it essential listening for anyone who cares about the history of American music.  Even if it's not your bag, it's hard to deny that maintaining that "language of the old music" is a worthwhile undertaking for young contemporary artists like Pokey and the South City fellas.  Like losing any other historic language, for this music that's so rich in history and culture to go extinct would be a sad and unnecessary loss

I followed the show in Nashville a few weeks later with a, get this, free show at Hill Country BBQ in Washington, DC, where I danced, talked to a couple of the boys in the band, and picked up a cd of their earlier record, Riverboat Soul.  The crowd at Hill Country packed the downstairs bar/performance area and was apparently full of friends and long-time fans of the band, and the atmosphere of the over-two-hour long show was joyous.  These boys work hard and seem to enjoy every drop of sweat they put into their performance as much as their audiences do.  If you get the chance to go see 'em, do yourself a favor and do so.  I intend to every chance I get.

Pack It Up at the Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA, a show I would have attended if it hadn't been an hour and a half away and pouring down rain when I left work that night.  Comments from the audience at Hill Country BBQ made me very sorry I'd missed it--

So, now that we've stepped back, let's follow Pokey and the boys and step forward to keep the wonderful traditions of this music alive.  As Pokey says, "We'll see you down the road..."  Let's just hope it's a long one.