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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