Friday, November 19, 2010

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 11/19/10 - Deerhunter and Muddy Waters

It’s becoming clear that Deerhunter, like their indie homefrys Liars and Dan Deacon (for just two vaguely analogous examples), are in it for the long haul. Flash-in-the-pans come and go, and the overhyped have a tendency to betray the true magnitude of their nature, but long haul bands and artists share the knack for cutting through all the extraneous distractions and temptations to get down to the brass tacks of making quality records. It can be a romantic notion to surmise that the long haulers are the true lovers of music and the hypers and panners are merely self-serving or careerist in purpose. Attributing qualities to those we don’t know is a dangerous activity however, and just because a record from a flavor-of-the-month is shallow or uninspiring doesn’t mean the intentions of those who made it weren’t pure. But in Deerhunter’s case, designating them as music lovers is quite appropriate, since their latest release HALCYON DIGEST is explicitly about being inspired by the lovely (and sometimes lonely) tumultuousness of musical passion and fandom. There are many facets to the terminal need for sound, and where Sonic Youth’s string of Geffen releases often attained an aura of hipster erudition, or You La Tengo’s continuing Matador run feels like the crystallization of the greatest used record store ever opened, Deerhunter’s new one pleasantly reeks for much of its duration like a very well programmed set of late-night college radio (remember college radio?) or an expertly crafted mix-tape handed down from an older sibling. There is tangible disparity from track to track, but also a considered thread of similarity, a connective tissue that erases any threat of facile genre hopping. No, the quality of the songs here is striking, and Deerhunter’s continued movement away from their more noisesome roots is frankly not the trajectory I would have predicted and also not the slightest bit disappointing. While they never really gave Wolf Eyes or Merzbow a run for the cacophonous money, Bradford Cox and Co certainly began more as experimenters/manipulators/disrupters of rock-based sound rather than subverters/extenders of essentially pop-oriented song form. This type of streamlining progression often results in diminishing returns, but happily not in this case, since it’s become obvious that Deerhunter couldn’t make a “normal” album if they tried. Again, they have been heading in this direction for some time, but never has the migration sounded this advanced and surefooted. What once felt like dabbling and growth has moved past the point of no turning back. And maybe it’s just the label switch to 4AD, but I’m detecting a hazy anglophile vibe on HALCYON DIGEST that if traced all the way to its origins would likely lead us into a walk-in closet full of Bowie’s high-heeled boots. What a clothes horse! Additionally there are flashes of ‘60s-inspired transistor radio guitar jangle mildly reminiscent of San Fran’s Girls, hints of the new-new-new-psychedelia (possibly due to producer Ben H. Allen) that continues to place these guys in the general proximity of Animal Collective and an overall commitment to quality that’s heartening in these days of shoddy or underdeveloped product. Closing with a very fine tribute/dedication to the late, much missed Jay Reatard, HALCYON DIGEST is a very necessary proposition, and any survey of the contemporary music scene is incomplete without giving ample time to these considerable cats. Deerhunter’s been at it now for over half a decade, which in contemporary indie scene terms is a real long time, and it seems like they’re just getting warmed up.

Muddy Waters’ deserved reputation as one of the greatest of all bluesmen basically rests on his steadily evolving flow of exceptional material from the 1950s. By the middle of that decade, he’d essentially perfected the groundbreaking ensemble sound that would pretty much define the following twenty years of Chicago Blues (Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Charlie Musselwhite etc) and would additionally play a pivotal role in rock music’s fitful growth (ever hear of the Rolling Stones? How about Eric Clapton?). The sparks and grease of Muddy’s innovation actually transpired on the bandstands of clubs and joints, and when the Brothers Chess finally relented and let his working band unleash their stuff in the studio the results were pure, thick gravy. While amplification of the blues had been a practical maneuver, allowing the music to be heard over the din of clamorous nightlife, Waters’ band took it a vital step further by synching themselves into one huge, rhythmically pulsating entity that’s effectiveness was only enhanced by their growing facility with the elements inherent to electrification. Brilliantly combining density with agility, they also deftly mixed varying degrees of smooth, suave urbanity with the tough rural Delta roots that made up the core of Muddy’s sound. The boldness of tone remains astounding. SINGING THE BLUES 1954-1959 is twenty-four tracks spread across two LPs that successfully provide a deep immersion into the still vibrant power of this estimable man’s grand repertoire. It combines a sprinkling of well known ringers like “I’m Ready”, “Mannish Boy” and “I Got My Mojo Working” with a strong helping of less bandied but just as worthy numbers such as “Evil”, “Diamonds At Your Feet” and a cover of his rival Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’”. Muddy’s guitar and vocals sustain a uniformly high level throughout, and the players surrounding him are in the top tier of post-war blues artists. The set extensively features the majestic walking bass of Willie Dixon, mouth harp by sublime blowers Little Walter Jacobs and James Cotton, the faultless piano of Otis Spann, sturdy second guitar from either Jimmy Rogers or Pat Hare, and the crucially unfussy drumming of Francis Clay. As the music’s power accumulates, nary is a note laid wrong. The majority of the songwriting is roughly split between Waters and Chess house maestro Dixon, who in addition to bass duties served as a songwriter, producer, and general all purpose conduit between the brothers Phil and Leonard Chess and the constant flow of talent they captured. The difference between Muddy’s Delta-descended stuff and Willie’s considerably more pop oriented material is complimentary, with Waters’ splendid delivery tying the strands together, and the sheer range on display means this sets’ listenability across four sides of vinyl is quite a rare achievement. Even the greatest blues artists can become a bit or a lot monochromatic as separately released sides are compiled and presented as a single entity, but by this point Waters was swinging so hard and wide that 1954-1959 solidifies and gains momentum as strongly as any long-playing release in the genre. “Good News” and “Evil” include some unexpected and not overdone tenor sax, and “She’s Into Something” finds the group finessing a wickedly shifting dynamic that’s about as progressively urban as Muddy ever got. Add in three cuts from the rather unheralded MUDDY WATERS SINGS BIG BILL BROONZY LP and the breadth of this mighty baby should be readily apparent. The man’s track record up to around ’65 or so is unimpeachable, and I’ll always have a serious soft spot for the diamond-tough extremity of the early material, but 1954-1959 is simply the stuff of legends. By this point Waters had the sure-footed swagger of a Mississippi man transplanted to Gotham and made good. And instead of slacking off, he just kept turning up the heat. What a benevolent mastermind he was.

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