A belated Happy New Year to all of my readers. New Years is the time not only for looking forward, but also for looking back at the old year and summing up. This is why the month of January takes its name from the ancient Roman god Janus, who had two faces, and was always looking behind him and forward at the same time. The Lord of Two Faces, a club named after him, would feature a selection of music that moves forward by drawing on the past in new ways. It’s a tricky thing to balance. The music can sound like an oldies act if overdone in one way, or it can come unmoored from the body of tradition that inspired it if overdone the other way. But, when the proper balance is found, the resulting music can sound both familiar and refreshingly new at the same time. Let’s have a listen.
Mark “Pocket“ Goldberg: This Train
The foundation for the music of Mark “Pocket” Goldberg is clearly the blues. The music is partially electric, but Goldberg’s instrument is the stand up bass. In terms of vocals, Goldberg has the bluesy growl you would expect if you thought that Howlin’ Wolf and Tom Waits were somehow related to him. Despite that, Goldberg can sound very soulful on the ballads here. This Train is more of a blues incantation than a ballad. Goldberg and his band are after a gritty intimacy here, and they hit it perfectly. Rather than sounding like something crafted in a recording studio, (even though it surely was), this music sounds like something that was in a man’s heart and just had to come out. The gospel-like backing vocals in This Train are done in a way that only enhances this effect. All of the songs here were written or co-written by Goldberg. Within the blues form, which he stretches somewhat, Goldberg writes more involved lyrics than are typical of the blues. This allows Goldberg to tell detailed stories, but the emotional immediacy of the blues is preserved.
The Way Down Low: Check My Condition
The Way Down Low are a four piece band whose members play mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, and upright bass. Three of the band members sing. Must be bluegrass, right? Not exactly. Bluegrass is certainly an element, but so is rock. The band displays a sensibility that reminds me of the Violent Femmes. And there is also a jazzy element that shows up more prominently in some songs than others. The Way Down Low get all of this to make perfect sense, through their high energy performances. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all this is the fact that this is their debut album. They show an assurance and a well defined sense of musical identity that is very rare for a new band. The future for the Way Down Low seems very bright.
Elephant Revival: Drop
Elephant Revival is a five piece band. Between them, the play eighteen different instruments, so they have a lot of options in terms of arranging their songs. One of the highlights is their beautiful arrangements for strings. Band members play violin and cello, and they bring extra violin or cello players on some songs. I use the word violin instead of fiddle, because of how it is played here. The music of Elephant Revival combines elements of folk and classical in songs that have a delicate power. That may seem like a contradiction, but they make it work. The band has both male and female singers, both on lead and background vocals. So again, they have a lot of options, and they know what to do with them. The singers each have their own personalities that come through when they sing lead, but the band has a consistency in their sound, even when they are working with a wonderful variety of musical textures. You can ignore all of this, and just enjoy a wonderful set of emotionally engaging songs. But this music is also very rich, and should greatly reward repeated playings.
Biscuit Kings: The Day I Met My Waterloo
In the Day I Met My Waterloo, we are musically in New Orleans. The house is rockin’, and you can just about smell the gumbo in this song. But step back a bit, and you will notice that the smallish band is playing entirely acoustic instruments. Biscuit Kings are the duo of singer and songwriter Johnny Pierre and bass player Jeff Goldstein. Pierre plays guitar, keyboards and percussion, and there is a decent sized group of guest musicians. But this album is all about making a big sound with a group that is no larger than absolutely necessary. One key to making that possible is Pierre’s voice. He half-growls half-sings in a friendly but gruff baritone that is actually quite musical. When he gets to the ballads, of which there are quite a few, his voice manages to be intimate and emotional at the same time. Some of the instruments eventually get plugged in, but the power of this music comes from that voice, and the tightness of the band. Normally, I would wonder how the music would hold up when performed live by just the duo, but Pierre and Goldstein have earned my trust here.
Malcolm Hunter & the Makeshift Dream Orchestra: Hangups
Suppose I told you that someone had discovered a long-lost tape from 1979 of an album that was never released, and that featured collaborations between Steely Dan, Michael Franks, and Gil Scott-Heron. To my knowledge, no such tapes ever existed, but Malcolm Hunter’s album Nostalgia in My Square Head is what they might have sounded like. It’s a heady mixture, and it really works. In the midst of all of this, Hunter includes a cover of a Charles Mingus tune, and it feels right at home. Hunter’s voice has that cool breeziness that Franks was known for, but with some of Scott-Heron’s grit. The arranging ideas, especially the interplay between Hunter and his background singers, are from the Steely Dan playbook. But this album doesn’t feel like a pastiche at all. It feels like the work of a talented artist who is paying homage to his inspirations, and laying down a solid foundation from which to build his own thing. Hunter is going to be an artist to keep an eye on as he develops his talent, and this is a great place to start.