A couple of months ago I was approached by a PR guy about doing an interview with Kim Simmonds in advance of his new release. If you don’t remember Kim Simmonds, he achieved a fair bit of fame as the leader of Savoy Brown, the British blues-based rock band popular in the early 70’s.
I explained to the gentleman in question that because I lived in Paris and had a full-time job that an interview would be a challenge, but to let me know when the album came out and I’d be happy to review it. I never heard back from him, but it started me wondering. Whatever happened to blues-based rock bands? Players in the sub-genre were fairly popular in the late 60’s to mid-70’s. There was Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Johnny and Edgar Winter and Bloodwyn Pig. Jethro Tull began its journey as a blues-based outfit. Also popular during that period were the power rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie and Deep Purple, all of whom had players with roots in blues, R&B or soul music. This was right before rock began splitting into genres, and somewhere during that split, the connection to the foundation of rhythm and blues was lost, and what passed for rock in the 1980’s was like a thin soup.
Since I’ve always believed that a rock band sounds better and richer with a foundation in blues or R&B, the relative invisibility of bands grounded in the basics over the last few decades could explain in part why rock ‘n’ roll has suffered a decline in quality and popularity. I listen to today’s rock and hardly any of it makes me want to get out of my seat and shake my beautiful ass to the groove. When you listen to the early electric blues guys like Muddy Waters or some of the great bands of the 60’s who were inspired by blues or soul music, you not only hear the difference, you feel the difference in that sweet spot between your legs. I always know when I’m hearing great rock and roll, because I either wind up jacking off (when alone) or grinding up against my partner (when available). Either way, I get the same result. The average person doesn’t react quite as intensely as I do (or at least they don’t write about it), but the point is that great rock ‘n’ roll makes you want to get up and move, and most of today’s rock ‘n’ roll puts me to sleep.
After spending another weekend with my mother finishing up The Moody Blues’ reviews, I really wanted some music that would twiddle my diddle. At their best, The Moody Blues are “nice” to listen to when you’re in a certain mood. I’m rarely in that mood, and I wanted something more suited to my usual orientation towards life: ready to fuck in a heartbeat. As I was thumbing through my iPod in the Nice airport looking for some kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll, I remembered that a twitter-bud of mine had sung the praises of a Colorado band called West Water Outlaws. I’d downloaded their latest album before my trip to Vegas but didn’t have time to give it proper attention due to a pretty full schedule split between boring business meetings during the daylight hours and drawn-out debauchery from dusk to 2 a. m.
I waited until it was cool to play electronic devices in flight and thumbed to the first track on West Water Outlaws, “Caught in the Headlights.” Oh my fucking god. Pounding, aggressive drums. Big guitar riffs. The bass filling all the open spaces. A stop-time segment twenty-three seconds into the track that made me want to scream in ecstasy . . . but also filled me with terrible anxiety. I’ve experienced this moment before—the band sounds promising and then the lead singer sounds like a crow with bronchitis. “Please please please please please be good,” I prayed during the stop-time passage. OH MY FUCKING GOD! This guy is a great lead singer! He’s got the passion, the screams, the timbre, the phrasing, the depth—fuck yeah! I immediately stopped the song and played it from the beginning so that I could enjoy it without my paranoia getting in the way. The only problem I had was that I couldn’t get the iPod to go any louder. This was absolutely no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll to thrill the soul, played with total commitment. Even better, they move off the core chord pattern towards the end and the guitars fucking fly and the drums go mad and the bass drives it home and goddamn the fucking airlines for banning smoking on planes! I wanted a post-sex cigarette! I deserved it! I jacked off two minutes into the song!
It is so hard to be a woman unable and unwilling to control her erotic reactions to great rock ‘n’ roll. Sigh. I guess it’s my fate to live my life as a social outcast.
West Water Outlaws is advertised as delivering “high energy rock ‘n’ roll” and this is no marketing tagline. Their self-titled first album is an amazing piece of work, in part because it’s so fabulous to hear take-no-prisoners rock ‘n’ roll, but even more so because this is a group of very strong musicians who play with tight intensity and demonstrate much more variation in their songs than you would expect from the typical rock band. I think they have a great future ahead of them as long as the industry doesn’t fuck them up and they stick to their vision. From their website:
The high energy rock ‘n’ roll band West Water Outlaws from Boulder, Colorado was formed in early 2010 playing parties in the basement of singer Blake Rooker’s house. During the mass explosion of DJ software and macbook pros, not many parties in Boulder featured live rock bands. The rock parties were a hit and the band began playing in bars and local clubs for a small fee of beer and food. All four members have a strong foundation in blues/rock music which many listeners recognize as a classic sound but each and every one of those listeners can tell you something unique and innovative about The Outlaws. In the mind of the band, rock and roll is not a passed genre that they are attempting to revive, yet a continuous staple of music that challenges them to evolve their writing style and develop their own creativity. “We’re just four guys playing instruments in the way that makes sense to us—the fact that it comes out rock and roll is completely separate.” – Will Buck.
That’s a killer formula: a foundation in blues/rock music, a focus on live performance and an openness to evolution. The Beatles wouldn’t have amounted to much if they hadn’t played their fingers off in Hamburg. They would have died after the sugar high of Beatlemania if they had kept doing the same old stuff over and over again.
The band shifts to a heavier sound and a slower, sexy rhythm in the next song, “Feeling Come Back,” a riff-driven song enhanced by the introduction of an organ fill in the chorus and the delightful choice to defy expectations in the chord pattern of that chorus. Lead vocalist Blake Rooker delivers another strong performance, and I have to say right now he passes the number one test for a lead singer: I never get tired of hearing his voice. “57” doesn’t refer to the fifty-seven varieties of Heinz, but the amount of money in Blake’s bank account, hardly enough to pay for even the most heavily-discounted hooker on the planet. This track is killer for three reasons: the rhythm section of Vince Elwood (bass) and Andrew Oakley (Drums) are as tight and powerful as it gets; Will Buck rips it on the lead guitar; and any song that has a male voice singing, “Hey—you got me on my knees” is always going to appeal to a woman with a long history of dominating the weaker half of the species.
The intro to “Rising Sun” sounds like an amped-up intro to one of those old Marty Robbins ballads of the wild west, and sure enough, the beat definitely has a western flavor, though performed at a speed that would have given Marty a heart attack. It’s a nice shift from the heavy rock intensity of the first three tracks, but don’t get me wrong—the song still rocks. “Goodbye Song” opens with lap steel guitar with a slight lo-fi tinge before Blake Rooker comes in with a gorgeous, soulful vocal with only the guitar in the background and a few percussive touches from Andrew Oakley. When the band kicks in, the vocal glides perfectly into the groove, a subtlety that I noticed right away because it sounded like they were performing live. I did some research and found another positive review on Denver Westword that explained how they pulled it off: “The first two EPs, we did everything separately, different rooms and overdubs,” notes bassist, keyboardist and backup vocalist Vince Ellwood. “On this album, we had live vocals while we were playing. Everyone was in one room playing together.” It paid off, guys!
“Something Wrong” adds to the diversity of the album with its soft-loud dynamics, opening with a skip beat on the drums, solid bass and sweet lead guitar runs on the right channel. A transition line introduces distortion and announces the chorus, where Blake is on his knees again (hooray!) and belts out the lines with palpable force. Will Buck’s lead guitar solo here is super, and I love it when they kick into a guitar duet and fill the headphones with sound and fury. “Hard to Love You When I Don’t Love Me” opens dark, heavy and deliciously bass-drenched before Blake kicks in with a sassy street vocal accented by stop time breaks. Everyone gets a shot during a long instrumental passage with stop time breaks and a shift to a bluesier tempo that creates an intensity that is off the charts. Cigarette!
Next is the upbeat “Bless Your Soul,” featuring blues harp and a story line that is classic Chicago blues: a woman has a gun and is threatening to dispatch her soon-to-be-former lover with one shot between the eyes. Normally I get turned off by songs featuring guns and violence, but the Chicago feel makes the threat of violence credible within the context of what was a naturally violent sub-culture. They go further into the blues for “Things I Meant to Say,” a slow number that gives Will Buck a chance to show off his impressive command of the fretboard and Blake Rooker a chance to exhibit his equally impressive range of vocal styles. I love the way he spits out that line “all those goddamn things I had to say,” and I love the way they move off the three-chord blues structure for the bridge, a brilliant bit of heresy that works like a charm. The track runs for almost nine minutes, and there’s never a dull moment—something I thought only Sonny Landreth was able to pull off.
“665 (Neighbor of the Beast)” is a slight detour into metal territory and as I don’t care for metal, I had a hard time getting into this one. It’s followed by the out-of-the-blue “Coronado’s Castle,” which bears no resemblance to any other song on the album. A reverb-tinged piano establishes two-chord pattern (Cm and Bm derivatives) over a background of studio sounds, then out of nowhere come layered harmonies highlighted by high falsetto. The effect is stunning; the voices blend beautifully and make you wonder why there weren’t more harmonies on the earlier tracks on the album. The sound of strings playing a counterpoint to the main melody is heard, along with single note bass and more studio noise; the piece fades with the sound of the strings becoming somewhat more prominent but not overwhelming. “Coronado’s Castle” is a daring and wonderful piece that defies expectations and shows that these guys have way more maneuvering room than your average rock band.
Going heavy right away after “Coronado’s Castle” would have made for a jarring listening experience, so “Gimme” begins with Blake playing a quiet set of chords on the acoustic guitar, a pattern that will continue for the first two verses, enhanced by lovely harmonies. When the full band kicks in, Will Buck delivers another superb solo before the band dials it down a bit for the third verse. By the end of this verse, Blake really lets it go and so does Vince Elwood, who enters with a set of very nimble bass runs. Will rips through another solo while Andrew Oakley provides all the right touches on the skins. “Gimme” is an exceptionally strong number, right up there with “Caught in the Headlights” on my favorite tracks list.
West Water Outlaws ends with “I’m Not Bad,” a piano-driven composition which, like “Gimme,” is delivered in an easier tempo. It’s a pretty ballad that further demonstrates their expansive range and has a nice “closing feel” to it.
After listening to the album the requisite three times, I sat back and let what I had heard settle in for a few minutes. What I heard is one of the best rock albums by anyone in quite a while from an extraordinarily talented and focused group of musicians who have enormous potential. They do hot, they do sweet, they do easy, they do blues, they do experimental—and somehow they turn it all into a cohesive and satisfying whole. West Water Outlaws is a stunning début album that will be playing in my headphones for weeks to come. I don’t do stars, and I hate pandering to consumerism, but in this case I feel a very strong need to make a recommendation to the music shoppers in my reading audience.
Get off your ass and go buy the fucking album!
I want to express my deepest appreciation to my twitterbud Jessica of Winston’s Lair and Vertigo Productions for turning me on to these guys. You can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jerkaminski (@jerkaminski).
“If we embrace the unexpected. If we are free not to be slaves to the rhythm. If we have the courage to believe that dreams can and will come true, our ears transform humble songs into music beyond our wildest imaginings” – The Vicar 11 July 2012.
This quote from the enigma that is The Vicar is the best possible introduction for a review of the most paradoxical and amazing album I have heard in years.
Over the years, rock has been an extraordinarily elastic form of music with many variations: punk, alternative, progressive, blues-rock, cabaret rock . . . the various genres continue to multiply. Still, all of these variations share a basic paradigm: the rhythm section. Except for “Eleanor Rigby,” and the occasional acoustic, progressive or a capella track, it’s very difficult for us to imagine rock without bass and drums. The concept defies our fundamental beliefs about what rock is all about. From Bill Haley to The Beatles to even the relatively progressive offerings of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the core rock rhythm section pretty much remains intact. The rhythm section is what makes rock rock. The Stones wouldn’t be the Stones without Wyman and Watts, and Kurt Cobain was that much better because of Novoselic and Grohl. Rock is about movement, and it’s that tight link between bass and drums that makes us want to jump out of our seats and onto the dance floor or slam into a nearby body.
But what if we could be “free not to be slaves to the rhythm?” What would rock be like without the traditional bass (usually electric) and drums?
Songbook #1 gives us that answer and at first, it’s shocking. There are fourteen tracks on the album and not once is the rhythm driven by bass and drums. During my first screening of the album, I felt adrift and lost with nothing to hang onto. I came very close to abandoning the thought of doing a review because I simply couldn’t get my pretty little head around what was happening. I decided to let it go and move on to something more familiar: power pop.
In the meantime, I found scraps of melodies from Songbook #1 popping up in my head, along with memories of some of the unusual arrangements and panning. I chose to ignore the neurotic internal dialogue that I was wasting my time on something that had crossed the line from progressive to gibberish, and pulled out my best set of headphones and gave Songbook #1 another chance.
The shock changed to fascination. I listened again and by the end of the third time through, I was convinced that eliminating the traditional rhythm section was a bold and courageous act that worked. Songbook #1 expands the possibilities of rock arrangement and will hopefully inspire other musicians to experiment with alternatives to tradition.
This is a good thing, because rock has always had a revolutionary component, whether you’re talking about Elvis shaking his hips, the cover and content of Sgt. Pepper or the sheer outrage of Never Mind the Bollocks. Rock is always at its best when it gives a big fuck you to convention . . . even its own conventions.
The fourteen tracks that make up Songbook #1 do have rhythm, but the rhythm on many of the songs is provided primarily by the string instruments you’d find in your typical chamber ensemble: violin, viola, cello, double bass. However, don’t assume that the strings have simply transformed themselves into 12-bar blues percussion instruments. The closest analogy I can give you is that the rhythm is like watching a film scored by Phillip Glass: the rhythm is unmistakeable but it moves to the emotional tension of the moment instead of sticking to a script. Once you get over the feeling of strangeness (caused by our own limitations of how things should be), the rhythmic movement becomes terribly exciting and gives you something to hold onto: a strange and wondrous thing, indeed, but a very solid foundation for the various arrangements.
Once you have your bearings, you can begin to appreciate the complex vocal performances on Songbook #1. At first, they may strike you as weird and ethereal, but once you get over your paradigm paralysis, you’ll realize that a good chunk of the songs could easily be played to a standard beat and arranged as first-class pop songs. That said, I am very thankful that The Vicar chose not to do this, for then they would have sounded quite ordinary and dull. What the string-driven rhythms and unexpected positioning of the vocals do is actually enhance the beauty of the melody . . . not so “it sounds just like a symphony,” in Chuck Berry’s words, but almost like the melody has escaped the bonds that limited its movement. On Songbook #1, we have an opportunity to experience melody and harmony as we rarely have before, and the experience is thrilling . . . once you let go of your expectations.
The album opens with one of the least accessible of all of the songs (at first blush), “The Girl with the Sunshine in Her Eyes.” Its dreamy opening bursts into vocal splashes and insistent strings that collide and revolve around each other in a breathtaking soundscape that is somewhat jarring when you first hear it. However, as the song moves forward, you find a familiar pattern of verse and chorus underneath the complex vocal and string collage, which in turns allows you to appreciate the essential beauty of the arrangement, which is pure genius. It has grown on me so much that it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, but I would advise the new listener to start with something less dramatic.
“Childhood Days” certainly fits that requirement, a lovely pastoral nostalgia piece supported by a stunning arrangement of flute and strings, but there are better songs further down the track listing. I would avoid the next song, “That Boy’s Not Cool,” until you’re more comfortable with having your expectations shattered; just when you think it’s a hard rocker without the rhythm section, there is a sudden shift to soft falsetto and then an equally sudden shift to the highly complex arrangement of the chorus, mingling cascading vocals with horns and strings in completely unexpected ways.
The one I would suggest the listener begin with is “The Moony Song,” which establishes its rhythm with the more familiar tool known as the acoustic guitar and leads into a beautifully delivered lead vocal backed by an arrangement of relative stillness. The chorus introduces the strings and harmonies, both breathtakingly beautiful. I have to pause at this point and comment on the excellence of the musicianship throughout Songbook #1, so obvious in both the arrangement and execution and easiest to appreciate in this simply gorgeous piece of music.
“Twenty Two” also opens with acoustic guitar, but quickly introduces music hall piano and reed instruments to back the once again superbly delivered vocals. This is one of those “humble songs” that brims with good humor, accentuated by the sheer novelty in the instrumentation. “Three Sides of Me” is an anthem for the modern neurotic male with a fascinating score that supports the underlying psychology in an almost Hitchockian manner; the vocal performance here is subtly theatrical and very much in character.
One of my absolute favorites is an ode to the weirdness of modern relationships, “Man with a Woman on His Mind,” another good place for the new listener to start. The lyrics are a hoot as the narrator moves his way through a world where his proclaimed heterosexual masculinity is challenged in multiple forms by placing the line, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s a man with a woman on his mind” in different contexts. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting and, once again, the arrangement of piano, horns and reeds is superbly supportive. This is followed by another one of my favorites, “Forever,” a haunting number with an understated arrangement about the search for paradise in this painfully mundane world of ours.
I hate to keep repeating myself, but another favorite is the still quiet of “San Manuel” where the sweetly plucked guitar and restrained vocals accentuate the painfully sad line, “Life just isn’t the same now that we know there’s nowhere to go.” This gem is followed by the more complex and exceptionally well sung, “She Closes Her Eyes” and then by “In Dying Fire,” another triumph of tasteful arrangement and restraint with lasting musical imagery. “Count Your Blessings” is another lush piece with yet another brilliant arrangement that makes perfect use of the double bass. The last two pieces on the album, “Inside My Head” and “Lonely Sunday” are more quirky than the previous pieces, ending Songbook #1 on a lighter note.
Songbook #1 ignores other conventions as well. The identity of the musicians is relatively obscure, as noted in The Vicar’s announcement. Other sources have identified some of the players, most of who are relatively unknown and not “well-known singers from The Vicar’s rolodex.” However, the message is clear: this is not the personality-based music that George Harrison complained about when he said, “You know what irritates me about modern music, it’s all based on ego. Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric—the more you jump around, the bigger your hat is, the more people listen to your music. The only important thing is to sell and make money. It’s nothing to do with talent.”
Songbook #1 has everything to do with talent, everything to do with musicianship and everything to do with artistic integrity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea and the success of this effort to expand our perspective on what rock and pop music could be is not going to force me to give up my love for The Dahlmanns, The Connection, Liam Gallagher and other artists who create equally important contributions to rock music through more traditional forms. The Vicar has made a brilliant, courageous, convention-defying contribution to the art, and I hope that musicians everywhere use Songbook #1 as an inspiration to break boundaries and explore new possibilities in their own work.