Quick addendum to Wednesday’s post:
When I wrote about KONGOS, I talked about how the combination of bass, accordion and guitar reminded me of South Africa and Paul Simon’s Graceland, a comparison that was helped along by the fact that I looked the Kongos brothers up on Wikipedia while I was listening to their album for the first time and saw that they had roots in South Africa. Meanwhile, sitting in my drafts folder were the beginnings of my Hurray for the Riff Raff post. I’d listened to Small Town Heroes all the way through (and have been enjoying it a great deal), but I’d forgotten/failed to notice that it employs that same combination of instruments on “End Of The Line.”
OK, maybe not the exact same. Swap an acoustic guitar out for an electric one, an upright (I believe) bass for an electric, and I don’t know enough about accordions to guess at what kind was used in either… Still — funny coincidence. But what’s interesting about it is that I don’t hear South Africa in “End Of The Line,” and it would be a little weird if I did. “End Of The Line” calls to mind the American South and New Orleans, with the incorporation of harmonica and fiddle, and the bass is played in a completely different style from the buoyant one that links Lunatic and Graceland. This whole thing is a great illustration of music’s bottomlessness — how similar arrangements can sound totally different from one another — and it reminds me of something Clay Ross of Matuto (fittingly, another band that features the bass-accordion-guitar trinity) said in our interview when I asked him about his group’s knack for weaving together different musical traditions:
There’s such a common story. Since I started, it was all motivated, purely on a musical level, by discovering, in this completely organic way, that if I put this rhythm that I learned in Brazil with this song from Kentucky, it sounds really cool, and I like that.
And then later you come to realize through investigating and studying the history a little bit more, if you look at the perspective of Colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and you take a step back 400 years and look at the collisions of cultures that are at the root of America and at the root of American society — and that means all of the Americas, not just North America — from that perspective, you have a common story shared between Brazil, the American South… It’s a common story of cultures colliding in this new land of opportunity and things mixing freely. That gave us rock and roll. That gave us jazz. That gave us all these styles of music in the Americas that we love and have stood the test of time.
It’s the same in Brazil. They have a similar set of influences that gave birth to these very distinctive styles, but at the root of those styles are the same ingredients that are in American music. It’s kind of cool because it’s liberating in a way if you look at it from that perspective. We’re chasing the thread of the one quality about all of this music that made it exciting in the first place. Why would this style survive all of this travel and all this hardship and all this human suffering? Why would it survive? There’s something really good about it, and that exists in all these cultures.
I love that answer. Music is so varied, but if you work backwards, you can connect just about any phrase, style or instrument to any other phrase, style or instrument. There’s no “You can’t get there from here.” It’s all related. (For a creepy extrapolation of this idea, see the lede to that Matuto interview.)
As focused as this post is on combinations of instruments, the song I love most on Small Town Heroes is on the sparser end of that spectrum. Just guitar and voice, “The New SF Bay Blues” is a testament to what quiet can achieve, sort of like the opposite of the kind of thing movie teenagers would crank up to piss off their parents. In fact, I did crank the song up in my car (I replayed it twice right away after hearing it for the first time) and the volume didn’t even seem to change very much. It was a little spooky. I like spooky.
Hear “The New SF Bay Blues” and “End Of The Line” below, and click here to buy the album, which I’d recommend highly.