A friend of mine told me a few months ago that his favorite new albums were by Montgomery Gentry, the White Stripes, and Dylan. “Hey, it’s a blues-rock revival!” he said. I think that’s cool, to lump them together like that, and what I like most about it is that they don’t share a genre (a self-styled blues-rock revival scene would be horrible, anyway) and don’t particularly signify as “blues” (MG are country, Stripes are indie, Dylan is his own signifier). Dylan’s the only one who’s actually playing blues patterns, but that doesn’t make any difference. Back in the ’60s and ’70s blues-influenced bands like the Stones, Zeppelin, and Lynyrd Skynyrd by and large didn’t use blues chord patterns—they used blues modes and blues riffs and blues rhythms on material that wasn’t blues and ended up sounding hard-blues anyway. (Vague parallel here to Billie Holiday, who almost never sang a blues song but whose singing was suffused with blues.) And these blues stylizations became so pervasive that “blues rock” is now just an adjective, and the sound can work its way into most any music.
Anyway, here are three more good records from the past year that fit the category “bluesy rockish bands that don’t signify as ‘blues-rock’ or have anything to do with each other”: Brooks & Dunn’s Steers & Stripes (hatted rocking country but with a grab-bag sensibility entirely unlike Montgomery Gentry’s), the Cutthroats 9’s Anger Management (bawling thrash-metal with werewolf vocals and with rhythms that move), and Lucyfire’s This Dollar Saved My Life at Whitehorse (dark-metal ZZ Top-ish bright guitar-boogie synthpop Eurodisco Hi-NRG new romantic Europop).
Brooks & Dunn play the most cluttered c&w I’ve ever heard. By cluttered I don’t just mean a lot of instruments but the fact that the instruments are all noodling around doing different things. This in itself is neither good nor bad; I absolutely detested it at first, and now I really like it. Sometimes the music trips all over itself, which can be both fascinating and frustrating, but when the clutter gets rocking it really rocks. So it makes more focused (and generally better) records like the Dylan and the Montgomery Gentry feel subdued and spare in comparison.
On Steers & Stripes what usually happens is that a song starts with a clear and strong guitar hook—”Brown Sugar” is a frequent influence—the drums come in with a kick, there’s a powerful solo line on pedal steel or slide, and the singer enters with a promising melody. And then more instrumental lines come in, and maybe some vocal “woo-woo-woos” distracting from or embellishing or muddying up what’s already there. Some slushy slow songs would be negligible, except that in the background the drums get to go on their own little dance, and bass and xylophone (or something) run up and down not quite in unison. There’s also a great rocking pop tune, “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You,” that was No. 1 on the country charts for six weeks (and that has a family resemblance to Londonbeat’s Britsoul hit “I’ve Been Thinking About You” from a decade back); the guitar leads provide the hard blues sound, while the background instruments give it an undertow that suggests rhythm ‘n’ blues.
Even though the music doesn’t in particular signify “complexity” (no weird time changes or show-offy passages, so I don’t know if the fact that the album has had songs high on the country charts for most of the year foretells anything about the direction of the genre), it doesn’t pander to the we’re-jes-simple-folks-down-on-the-farm mentality that country likes to foist on itself. It’s the most interesting record I’ve heard lately, and it’s fun, and it still has me befuddled.
I did an Internet search for adjectives that pertain to the Cutthroats 9, and what I came up with were “noise-rock,” “extreme,” “hardcore,” and “brutal.” (Says Ken Wohlrob at Bullymag.com: “There is no posing, no anger strut by barely 20-year-old suburbanites who are faking it. These guys mean it.”) The band got their name from a gory 1970s Spanish western that had tried to out-spaghetti the Italians (in a vain effort to prove that Spain really meant it too and was no mere suburb of the rest of Europe). Anyway, most extreme thrash music is as stagnant as ditchwater, but this band swings. The guitar and bass play shovel-the-muck metal chords, while drummer Will Carroll gets to be free and loose. It’s as if guitar-bass-vocals were merely laying down the basic track so that the drummer could put on the show. Vocalist Chris Spencer sings a standard hardcore retch-and-bellow, though he’s undermixed, perhaps deliberately, and often sounds like he’s simply screaming for his life over a requisitioned walkie-talkie. I was going to search the Web for lyrics, but that would have been pointless, since you are only going to hear what I heard anyway: “I noke whabrolly, you tawk soda frommy/Entawk taba ministry, entawk comma lemmy” (which seems pretty suburban to me, actually).
As for how the Cutthroats 9 move (and how they become eligible for the crypto-blues sweepstakes), the best tracks on the EP have the dum da-dum da-dum da-dum rhythm, which is technically known as boogie, and they ride this boogie ’round the ring at full gallop, except when they slow their pony down to a leisurely shuffle—which moves too, just at a different gait.
Lucyfire is a side project of Johan Edlund, leader of the Swedish dark-metal band Tiamat, a band that inspires the question “What’s so dark—and what’s so metal—about dark metal anyway?” In general with Tiamat the “darkness” seems to derive from the belief that ponds and glades and mists and forests that by day are merely picturesque become eerily pretty in the sadness of night. In the mid ’90s Tiamat played what was essentially a mood music, bordering on New Age except with guttural vocals and more dolorous sounds, which as I said can be quite pretty, Prélude à l’apres-minuit d’un faune and all that. My favorite couplet is “All I asked for was a little love/ But through my hands flew the maiden dove,” a lyric that, no matter the melancholy of Edlund’s intent or the despair of my heart, has never failed to make me laugh.
Lucyfire, on the other hand, is fun on purpose. The music is built around clean ZZ Top blues chords over bouncy ZZ Top beats. Edlund farmed out the guitars and keyboards to producer Dirk Draeger, who not only plays the sharp ZZ riffs but also inserts typically beautiful Eurodisco melodies in the background and typically catchy synth-pop melodies in the foreground, so with Edlund’s guttural singing you get a cross between Depeche Mode and Aqua and Alphaville (and ZZ Top of course). Also, since Edlund’s officially having fun (took me a while to notice the pun in the band’s name), he makes his lyrics a lampoon of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll songwriting: “Don’t want to hear you talk at all/Just want to see your dress fall,” and “I’m a roaring V8 in a rusty Chevelle/Give me one night and we’ll rock it to hell,” with synth bubbles popping all around him. In an interview on the Lucyfire Web site he says, “If I’d ever tell someone that I’m a roaring V8 in a rusty Chevelle, I’m sure I’d regret it in the morning.” (I take it that “maiden dove” goes over better?) He’s still doing some doom-and-gloom kitsch: “Oh, I’m the nail in the coffin, I’m your cyanide,” but this is almost Ramonesy in its humor. The song is called “Automatic,” implying sex-machine-type dependability, yet in the lyrics he’s comparing himself to tempests and pools of blood and so forth. “A decapitated horsehead on a virgin bed.” Like a death machine.
So, while Brooks & Dunn play country that sneaks counterrhythm into the mix, and the Cutthroats 9 play thrash to old boogie beats, Lucyfire play raunch-rock verities that are actually raunch-rock parodies and are a pretext for Edlund to prove that his talents are closer to Max Martin’s than to Ozzy Osbourne’s, and good for him. Moral: Just because you’re in one genre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t loot all the others.