July 07, 2007

Three Genres

I've never been at the cutting edge of music (I've never been at the cutting edge of anything), so I'm always one of the slowest and last to pick up new musical styles or trends. But when I did eventually pick up on them, three genres in particular really affected me: reggae, rap, and western swing.

Reggae hit me at just the right time — the bottom fallen out of punk, and New Wave and post-punk gathering steam. I'd known about (and heard) Bob Marley, of course, but hadn't really listened to it at all — and most of what I heard sounded like just rather pleasant pop ("I Shot The Sheriff"…), and the association with bands like The Clash really didn't help either. And then I heard, in quick succession, Culture, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals, Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Peter Tosh. Nothing too hardcore or adventurous, but what got me immediately was the sense of rhythmic and harmonic space — especially obvious in the dub versions — that allowed for so much subtlety and complexity in the background or in little bursts here and there (listen to what's going on in the background of a good Toots album one day…). It's the old story that everyone knows: complex effects through simplicity — but I'm a little slow, so it was a revelation for me. And hearing Sly and Robbie play together so … intuitively … in a way that anchored everyone else in space was another revelation. How could you do so much with space?! I started playing a lot less, and listening for the spaces. I started thinking about rhythm as elision as well as propulsion….

Rap: I remember the first time I heard what I think must have been The Sugar Hill Gang. I wanted to jump up in the air and shout it was so good, so different — shit, how did they do that?! The scratching, the beats, the toasting, the sampling — it both hit me like a wall, and seemed like such an obvious alternative to reggae toasting. I always knew I could never do anything like that, but I always knew it would lodge there in my mind for the rest of my life, even if the genre faded or changed out of all recognition. I suddenly knew what you could do with raw materials, raw sources, I suddenly knew you could work all this stuff into something exciting, I suddenly knew you could do so much musically with basic technology and a driven will… it seemed like punk's basic lessons all over again, ten thousand kilometres away. Someone else had picked up the torch….

Western Swing: I remember doing my engineering homework late one night in Redfern listening to Double Jay when this enthusiastic mixture of Jazz and Country came on. Christ, what the hell was this? A guy fiddling away like Stephane Grappelli over a basic country song while the guitarist noodles around with weird jazz scales and chords behind a hick singing about lost love in Texas? Pedal steel and exuberant horn lines? Country with rhythm? I phoned Double Jay to ask what the hell it was (I used to know several staffers there and thought I'd ask one of them). Mac Cocker himself answered, which was a little like talking to God. "It's Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys — it's called 'Western Swing'". OK, I wrote it down and went back to my homework. Years later I still marvel at how a bunch of Okies and Texas good old boys picked up on the jazz and blues coming out of New Orleans and Memphis and just made it work so naturally with basic country music. Yes, it later underwent a rather twee revival during the 1990's that destroyed it a bit for me, but that crossing of two quite different genres always struck me as one of the better examples of the musical melting pot. Plus for me there's personal resonance in the Oaktown and Bakersfield connections — two cities that have played very different roles in my life over the past fifteen years and that both became Western Swing and Country centres in their own ways.

(Part of Punk (and Later)).

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At 7/16/2007 8:52 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can share your first obsession Jimmy, the others are for others.

Reggae's great offering to the heathens was technical subtraction: less not more, taking stuff away, disappearing most of the sonic crap that the additive Spectorites had frantically layered up, a sudden gust of alpwind clearing out the fug and leaving a near-empty place with just that tsst-tsst of the hihat suddenly become central to the subterranean beat.

Oh the joy, they were I think the first crew to revel in 8 tracks not 4, 16 not 8, and use the boring old recording machinery like an instrument itself, dub off, loop on, repeat into the void. For the first time, no need to pre-plan every mix, every bounce of track to track, just maybe flick that one off, and that... hmmm, how about even more, off, off, off? Then slam it all back on like hitting a square wave wall.

And of course the bass; OK, that is something extra, the biggest bloody bottom end ever to ooze out of a sound system (whether in a bedroom or from the back of a flatbed before the sweating rum crowd in Santiago de C at carnaval). And a counterpoint crossbeat minimal approach to that bass, just a few monster thumps in impossible infectious places in the bar, the rest of it left vacant for your imagination to try to work out how it all fits together. Anti-disco, anti-doof, antidote to dumbeat drivel.

Alright, there's lots more to love in that music, but I better put a bung in it for now, not add to this anymore. (So much for less is more!)

(PS: If you and yours have not already come across her, check out Regina Spektor (no relation) from NYC; she's channelling that aural aesthetic if not their rhythm in at least two tracks beyond compare on her album.)


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