Keith Richards, in his surprisingly lively and well-written autobiography, Life, explains his use of open tuning on a five-string guitar, and how it created a signature sound. One fascinating statement really jumps out during a discussion of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”: “Flash” is essentially “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in reverse.
So, in this era of a wide and deep range of popular music to listen to, it is good to know, as you hear elements of past times, past sounds, that pop music has always sprung from sources, some more identifiable than others. These days, where sampling and looping older tunes can actually make careers (Girl Talk, for example), there are somewhat more subtle examples, too, more along the lines of Richards and the Stones making good use of their appreciation for 1950s Elvis Presley, John Mayall, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and the list goes on and on. Use the source material, and make it your own.
Yeasayer, then. Two albums, All Hour Cymbals (2007) and Odd Blood (2010). Loaded with melodic hooks you swear you’ve heard before and yet, and yet, you just can’t quite put your finger on it. The signature track on Old Blood, “Madder Red”, captures it perfectly, with its piano and rumbling guitar parts evoking such disparate things as “Burn Down the Mission” by Elton John and “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Evoking, not copying, and that is the charm of it.
The Tallest Man on Earth (no, not Sultan Kösen) is a Swede, born Kristian Matsson. His is a folk act, and he sounds so much like Bob Dylan in one song, Hank Williams in the next, that you would be forgiven in doubting his heritage. How does this music emanate from someone not born in some small town in America’s breadbasket during the days when bread was mighty hard to come by? To date, there are two albums and two EPs, but 2010’s The Wild Hunt gives you a great idea of how stark and lovely the songs can be.
Another Swedish band, this one pop, Miike Snow, is getting traction, first in the U.K. and now, more belatedly, in North America. The signature tune is “Animal”, complete with synth beats and strong hooks, all woven together in a vocal that borrows distinctively from Peter Gabriel. The only album to date is the eponymous debut, Miike Snow (2009).
And just when you think country music has perhaps begun to eat its own tail, that nothing really new can spring out of it, along comes Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs, and an album called God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise. LaMontagne had previously released three other albums as a solo act. He has an almost ethereal voice, which he knows how to pitch down into the gravel if need be. But the overall effect is unique; identifiable in its genre, but with flourishes, both instrumental and vocal, which bring it somehow into new ground, rendering the rural life some needed poetry while never trying too hard.
A small smattering of the stream of new music out there: bands like the XX, Bad Books, Fleet Foxes, Sleigh Bells, Broken Bells, and on. It might be worth sampling a few yourself. After all, it’s a great time to be a music lover; in fact, it’s a gas.