Wandering Stranger (Fat Possum)
Playing Dec. 2 at The Basement
Styles in music get called a lot of different things, and the specific artists covered by a term can make for a rapidly moving target. Along with musicians like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, the Delta-blues inspired singer and guitarist Entrance (Guy Blakeslee) gets grouped with music called avant-folk, weird folk, psych-folk or New Weird America. For Entrance's show at the Basement, Nashville's entry in this category, The Cherry Blossoms, will open.
Like Banhart and Newsom, Entrance has an unusual singing style. He belts out songs in a strong voice that has weight and a brassy note. On his new album Wandering Stranger, he stretches out on traditional blues and originals with themes similar to the old songs, accompanying himself on guitar with a couple of other musicians on some tracks. The songs have the pace and looseness of old blues recordings, but the guitar timbres, voice and accent sound modern. Wandering Stranger is no exercise in historical re-creation.
Entrance's CD offers us a chance to think about musical styles and what we call them. In addition to singers like Banhart and Newsom, the New Weird America thing (David Keenan used the phrase last year in Wire magazine) sometimes includes more rock-oriented groups like Charalambides and Jackie-O Motherfucker. I tend to think of these as psych bands whose music has none of the old-time quality that defines that of Entrance or Banhart. Singers like Jolie Holland and Kimya Dawson have similar homespun proclivities, although they almost never get mentioned in this group. Much of the reason for these inconsistencies between labels and sounds is that markets, audiences, clubs, festivals and record labels define styles and trends as much as sounds do.
Entrance is one of several musicians with what might be described as an archival sound. In general, the sound goes for a vocal timbre similar to what you find on old recordings, with Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as the Ur text, but in Entrance's case, Charley Patton looms large. Within this stylistic universe, musical settings are more loosely organized than they are in most pop music, and they usually have much lower production values. Musicians like Entrance and Banhart even include "outtake" comments on their records.
One way to see the music of these artists is as a form of resistance to experiencing music as a predominately commercial transaction. In its most polished forms, pop music oozes the calculations of mass consumption and the inevitable conversion into soundtracks for TV commercials. The problem with this is that the music is less a human-to-human communication than an exchange between you and the commercial construct known as Bruce Springsteen or Nellie. Many people want to listen to music without the sense that some company has programmed the entire event.
Another level of experiencing these recordings is as a time machine, sending us back to what the critic Greil Marcus calls the "old, weird America." Leaving aside the qualities that may or may not have prevailed in the 1920s and '30s, Entrance and others don't even recapture the sound or sensibilities of the recordings of that era, a historical moment with which they have little in common. Back then, artists were working people trying to make a few dollars by entertaining people, in most cases operating within the conservative milieu of small towns and a bygone social order.
Entrance's voice and guitar don't sound like those of a 1930s blues singer. For one thing, trying to re-create the complex, idiosyncratic guitar sound of Charley Patton would depart too much from his offhand ethos. If he is trying to recapture a past, it is the 1960s at that cusp when rock had vitality that came from its role in a counterculture that actively opposed what prevailed.
Many of the most forceful performers in the 1960s drew from the same recordings that inspire Entrance and others. To me, Entrance has the feel of early white electric blues bands like those of John Mayall and Paul Butterfield, a sound that is loose and a bit ragged. Rather than try to return to the life of the small-time rural South, it makes more sense that Entrance would make art that tries to rebuild the conditions that could lead to a renovation of an urban, mass media society. This aspiration, while as idealistic today as in 1966, seems more relevant to our current situation.
On two levels, then, the decision to revert to older styles, and the decision to listen to such music, represents a sort of resistance. An artist like Entrance uses space on the sonic bandwidth unclaimed by major media, and sets the clock back to a cultural moment of potential change and liberation. The resistance occurs on a sonic level as well. The strained quality of Entrance's voice verges on breaking, and the songs climax with guitar chords that sound like he makes them with wide, hard, almost out-of-control strokes of his hand across the strings. The sound creates an "in extremis" state that threatens to pierce the placid surface of life in a society saturated by markets; in Matrix terms, it causes a glitch in the program that projects an illusion in place of reality.
All of this assumes the invalidity of one explanation for such a non-commercializable stylethat the musicians lack the skill to produce music acceptable to a larger audience, and that the little audience they have consists of sonic masochists. Are musicians like Entrance just people who want to play rock star without submitting to the disciplines of technique in playing, singing, songwriting and production? The same question can be asked about punk rock, another style that often flouts technical expectations. Is it a matter of choice or of limited options? At this point, punk has too strong an identity as a musical style for that question to hold up. There's no reason why the same won't hold true for the reuse of archival sounds.
A singer like Entrance works along a continuum with others who go to the same sources but respond with more polished musical product. Joan Baez cast songs like "The House Carpenter" in serenely beautiful settings, and Natalie Merchant does the same today. Baez's voice on those early recordings for Vanguard is a miracle, and Merchant's efforts are worthy in a similar way. Does this pleasure represent a surrender to compliance? No doubt, both women would disagree vehemently, but Baez's crystalline renditions lend themselves to ready absorption into the world of mass culture and advertising, even if she has made decisions to resist that. Such polished sounds are hard to conceive in the contexts that musicians like Entrance create and occupy.
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