“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

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New Jack White Album “Lazaretto” Kicks.

Jack White's "Lazaretto".

Jack White’s “Lazaretto”.

It’s hard to believe that this is only Jack White’s second solo album. True, the White Stripes only officially disbanded in 2011, but their last album, Icky Thump was way back in 2007.

It’s hard to believe because in the interim he seems to have become a one man music making machine.

There was The Raconteurs, the band he formed with Brendan Benson and co. The Dead Weather, the one he put together with Alison Mosshart from the Kills and Dean Fertita from Queens of The Stone Age. The wonderfully atmospheric album Rome, produced by the similarly ubiquitous Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi (reviewed earlier here). Plus the small matter of Third Man Records, the record label he formed and runs seemingly entirely on his own.

So far his Nashville studio has played host to Wanda Jackson, Laura Marling, Loretta Lynn, First Aid Kit (reviewed earlier here), Drive By Truckers and Beck as well as producing reissues of Charlie Patton, Blind Willie McTell and Rufus Thomas. Oh, and his cracking first solo effort, Blunderbuss from 2012, reviewed earlier here.

The White Stripes in all their pomp with "Elephant".

The White Stripes in all their pomp with “Elephant”.

Lazaretto his second is, in the best possible sense, a greatest hits compilation of the many different musical moods and genres that he’s drawn to.

There’s the austerity and rigour of the White Stripes, the more expansive and relaxed country rock of the Raconteurs, and that constant pursuit and exploration of the roots and rhythms of his American musical heritage that’s becoming increasingly central to everything he does.

In this, and in his constant restlessness, that sense of being forever driven to gaze ever further afield, and ever more deeper within, we finally have a musician genuinely capable of picking up the mantle of his friend and musical mentor Bob Dylan.

White’s the real deal. And Lazaretto, as you’d expect, is gold.

You can see the title track’s video Lazaretto here.

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“Blunderbuss” by Jack White, verily a Prince Amongst Men.

Jack WhiteJack White is Bob Dylan’s much younger and much more industrious baby brother. Incredibly, he very nearly has the great man’s depth of vision and musical scope, but unburdened by the weight of messianic adulation, nice and quietly he’s living the musical dream.

Globally speaking, the White Stripes were little more than A N Other guitar band making a reasonably good living doing their thing. Within the world of music though, they were a phenomenon. A blindingly bright lightening bolt that lit up the night skies in a flash of uncompromising, searing brilliance.

White took that success and ran with it. He formed a couple of satellite bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather, launched his record label Third Man Records, and in 2009 bought a building in Nashville which he transformed into a recording hub.

There he’s produced LPs and singles (on vinyl of course) for the likes of Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, First Aid Kit (reviewed here), Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones and Alabama Shakes (reviewed here) as well as dueting with Norah Jones for three of the tracks on Danger Mouse’s Rome (reviewed here).

But last year The White Stripes officially called it a day. And then a few months later, White and his wife Karen Olson split up, marking the occasion, characteristically, with a divorce party. So this is his first outing as a single man. And there were really only ever two possible outcomes.

Either the Stripes depended for their magic on some intangible alchemical combination of both Meg and Jack. Or, the most potent force in rock will always be Jack White with whoever it is that he’s happens to have paired himself up with that particular morning. Blunderbuss puts that dilemma to bed once and for all.

It’s intriguing, not to say generous, of White to insist that it was Meg who wore the trousers in the band, as he does in Josh Eells’ superb interview in the NY Times here – sited in Pitchfork’s generous review here, not withstanding their skimpy 7.8.

But it’s blindingly obvious that it was he who was the band’s engine, its fuel, transmission and upholsterer. And Blunderbuss is an impressive amalgamation of all of the musical avenues he’s been exploring in all of the many musical projects he’s been involved with to date.

According to the interview he gave to All Songs Considered here, he kept two separate backing bands on hold, an all-male one and an all-female one. And one of the many pleasures that the album affords is trying to spot which one is which.

I’d have a small wager that the funky groves of I’m Shakin’ bespeak a female troupe, and not just because of the lush, Spector-esque female backing vocals, including, again characteristically (of them both) his now ex-wife Olsen.

Whilst it’s impossible not to conclude that the primal propulsion of the majestic single Sixteen Saltines is the work of undiluted machismo – and quite correctly, White positioned this as his track 2. The album would have been quite overwhelmed by it had he begun with it.

This is a proper piece of work from a very serious musician indeed. Quite simply, the man’s royalty.

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