Friday, September 12, 2008

Johnny Cash Remixed

I read an academic paper once that argued that hip-hop sampling was just a natural technological continuation of the practice of quotation in jazz and the blues.* The implicit corollary was that jazz, the blues, and other primarily African American musical forms were natural and inherently appropriate sources for quotation by sampling. Johnny Cash Remixed seeks to see how well country music, a music usually considered outside the African American vernacular music tradition, fares when quoted and reinterpreted in the hip hop vernacular.

There’s a fair amount of general skepticism in country and roots music circles about the potential of this sort of remixing and of this records in particular.

It would be hard to call this record a success, in spite of a few stand out tracks, but I think its failures can show us some of the dangers that must be dealt with when remixing music history.

The most mediocre tracks on the album, such as Count De Money’s “Big River,” suffer from a lack of imagination; they merely add a beefed up, somewhat-electrified rhythmic base or filter the original vocal or instrumental track through echo or distortion digital effects. These tracks fail by being too faithful to the original, refusing to add anything interesting out of fear of overshadowing it.

At the other end of the spectrum, “I Walk the Line,” remixed by QDT Musik featuring Snoop Dogg, has a jarring disjoint between the tenor of the source material and the added sounds. I actually kind of like QDT’s beats here, but Johnny’s vocals, old analogue monaural recordings that they are, sound thin next to the dynamically richer synthesizer and new vocal recordings, and the original is never adequately integrated into the mix or into the song. I’m torn as to whether this is a failure of intention, not respecting the source material, or a failure of execution; it’s probably partially both. Overall, I’d say this collection suffers from a general disjointedness between the largely acoustic and analog source material and the very electronic-sounding new material.

Interestingly, the two tracks that undeniably succeed succeed for different reasons. The Midnight Juggernauts’ “Port of Lonely Hearts” is largely just a reworking of the music behind Johnny's vocals, but unlike “Big River,” in which the added rhythm tracks imitate and fight with the original instrumentation, here the sparse original accompaniment is largely jettisoned in favor of an equally sparse, ethereal and electronic sound into which Johnny’s vocals and a remnant of the original guitar are deftly integrated.

Alabama 3 has perhaps the best track on the album, unsurprising, as this sort of postmodern mixture has been their thing for quite some time. It is obvious that they respect their source material, yet they are unafraid of totally dismantling it to create something new. While the central author of all of the other tracks remains Johnny Cash, Alabama 3 essentially creates their own new song, which just happens to share a chorus with and include samples from Johnny Cash’s “Leave that Junk Alone.”

Johnny Cash - Leave that Junk Alone [Alabama 3 Remix]

From Amazon

* Andrew Bartlett, “Airshafts, Loudspeakers, and the Hip Hop Sample: Contexts and African American Musical Aesthetics,” African American Review 28 (1994):639–652.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Chris Scruggs - Tennessee

I saw Chris Scruggs, former/on-and-off co-front man and steel player with BR549, last April and I picked up the tour-only EP Tennessee. I had liked Chris’s contributions to BR549, notably his song “Honky Tonkin’ Lifestyle,” which first appeared on his independent solo debut of the same title (which I was never able to track down) and was later included on BR549’s Tangled in the Pines. Scruggs also brought a youthfulness and vigor to BR549, making him, if not a good replacement, per se, for Gary Bennett, at least a good inclusion in the post-Bennett BR549.

Scruggs continues the honky-tonkin’ in his solo shows, but with a more stripped down sound and a bit more rock ’n’ roll influence. His EP is a more ethereal, however, including solid, southern gothic–influenced interpretations of ’40s and ’50s country standards.

Chris Scruggs - Wayfaring Stranger

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reverend Organdrum - Hi-Fi Stereo

The Reverend Horton Heat gig I saw last month was the same fast and frenzied postmodern rockabilly that’s been drawing standing-room only crowds for two decades. Front man Jim Heath’s hair might be starting to show his age, but his guitar playing isn’t exactly what you might expects from a many pushing fifty.

I knew that Reverend Organdrum, Heath’s side project with Hammond organist Time Alexander and drummer Todd Soesbe, would be different from Rev. Horton Heat, but I wasn’t expecting such a laid-back lounge vibe from this CD. Heath and Alexander interweave the sounds of their respective instruments not in the spirit of showmanship usually seen in rockabilly revivalism, but to effect an atmosphere, the rockabilly after-party chill-out.

Reverend Organdrum - A Shot in the Dark

From Reverend Organdrum
From Amazon

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Jones Street Boys - Overcome

I got a song off this album from another blog (S:I?) a few months ago and couldn’t stop playing it. That song, “Last Time,” showed the Jones Street Boys as a promising string band willing to incorporate accent instruments such as piano, harmonica, and traps drums. When they sent me their disc last month, I was not disappointed. But their record shows a greater stylistic range than I was expecting. They keep their record centered on the New York-style string-band sound, but they foreground harmonica, piano, organ, and other keyboard instruments on a few tracks. This album comfortably inhabits the uneasy middle ground between string-band revivalism, insurgent country, adult alternative acoustic, and hipster folk. The other stand-out track on the disc is a cover of the Band’s “Twilight.”

The Jones Street Boys - Last Time
The Jones Street Boys - Twilight

From Insound
From Amazon

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Corb Lund - Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!

Corb Lund is obsessed with horses. I’m not sure if every song on this album mentions them, but even “Student Visas,” a haunting song about a US soldier’s experience as a CIA aide to the Nicaraguan Contras, calls upon the soldier’s family heritage in the cavalry, connecting his injury in a shot-down helicopter to the helicopter’s replacement of the horse in some US Army cavalry units. But the horse theme, or perhaps more specifically a cavalry theme, runs throughout the disc.

I don’t know Corb Lund’s personal history with horses—whether he’s a horseman or not—and I’m not trying to question his “authenticity” if he isn’t. His songwriting shows a longing for the the history and freedom symbolized by the horse that I, as someone who cannot ride and wishes he could, find compelling. “Whenever I see horses, it reminds me of what I ain’t. . . . Whenever I see horses, I see a path I did not take.”


Corb Lund - Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier


Corb Lund - I Wanna Be In The Cavalry


From CD Baby

Friday, September 07, 2007

White Ghost Shivers - Killing Tradition

Austin-based "hot jazz" ensemble the White Ghost Shivers are plugging in tonight at the Replay Lounge in Lawrence, KS, and playing a set of punked up versions of their 1920s-style fare. At their acoustic show last night I picked up a copy of a teaser EP featuring four of their songs redone in this style. Here's the original version of "Strictly Ornamental" from their latest full-length album Everyone's Got 'Em along with their new version.


The White Ghost Shivers - Strictly Ornamental (acoustic album version)

The White Ghost Shivers - Strictly Ornamental (electric EP version)


From Chicken Ranch Records

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Jeff Zentner - Hymns to the Darkness

A couple months ago I posted about "distortion folk" group Creech Holler. Lead singer Jeff Zentner also sent me his solo CD, Hymns to the Darkness. Unlike Creech Holler, which takes a distorted electric take on largely traditional tunes, Zentner's disc brings a baker's dozen of acoustic originals. Truly a solo album, Zentner plays guitar, dobro, steel, mandolin, and banjo, and provides his own harmony vocals.

Listen how the steel guitar hovering over the more "old time" sounding acoustic instruments creates an interesting ethereal Southern Gothic sound.


Jeff Zentner - Rusty Town


From CD Baby