December 2013: Memphis

Amy LaVere – Damn Love Song Gabe and I completed our Tennessee Tour 2013 this month with a few days in Memphis, a city whose musical culture, both past and present, is a gift that keeps on giving. When we visited Nashville in March I got the idea that people there think of it as a small place crammed with musicians who know each other and collaborate, and there's clearly a lot of truth to that. But Memphis actually seemed to manifest that community feeling without the Nashville hype, in a down-to-earth way that epitomizes the difference between the two music cities. Perhaps it was a result of spending some time with my old friend Joann, who is deeply plugged into the culture of the city (especially musical), but in three days we coincidentally brushed shoulders with several musicians in a way that felt totally unpretentious and natural.

The strangest of these was our run ins with Amy LaVere, who we ran across during our visit to Graceland, where she starred in a funny little short film that was basically a tourism booster for Tupelo, MS - Elvis' birthplace. Gabe was charmed by the strangeness of it. That night we went to the Poplar Lounge to see Joann's husband Steve and several other people perform, and there was Amy LaVere hanging out at the bar. We talked with here for a while and got the skinny on the film (whose director Mike McCarthy usually specializes in "sexploitation" films, like Cigarette Girl - She'd Kill For A Smoke and Superstarlet A.D. - Apocolypse Meow) and were invited to her house for a Christmas Eve shindig. Yes, that's how Memphis felt. Later that night we decided to watch a movie somehow related to Memphis, and ended up with Black Snake Moan - and there she was again on screen with Christina Ricci.

I'm looking forward to digging into her music more, but this track from her most recent full-length is muscular and shimmery. That's her on that great growly bass, counter-balancing her delicate vocals.

Valerie June – The Hour Gabe "discovered" Valerie June for us while getting ready for our Memphis trip. There's plenty of praise for her (and the standard simplified version of her story) out there, but the way this album transcends genre boundaries is what really gets me. Production by Dan Auerbach, who is quickly becoming the producer-to-beat.

Quadron – Favorite Star Skimming some end-of-year best-of lists has mainly had the effect of illustrating how much great music I did not listen to in 2013. I'm looking forward to catching up with 2013 in 2014, and I promise there will be discoveries from some of these lists showing up on Faux Sounds over the next couple of months. I learned about this Danish group from Ann Powers' best of list, which focuses entirely on female artists. This is one of several great lists from the All Songs Considered crew, which in typical fashion, are some of the most diverse I've seen. The Quadron stuff is a little bit sugary, and sometimes sounds slightly anachronistic, but Coco O. has a super listenable voice. The duo's other half is Robin Hannibal, who was also one half of another of 2013's super-buzzed about group Rhye.

Surprise Jazz – Merengue I don't even remember why or how I ended up on this album of field recordings Lomax made in Haiti, but it kind of captivated me. It's nice to be reminded of how much there is to Haiti beyond poverty and Wyclef Jean. I love how the group performing is simply called "Surprise Jazz," and the way it implicates Alan Lomax as an intrepid outsider (at best) or a cultural colonialist (at worst). I mean, surely this music wasn't a surprise to most of the people making and hearing it. Regardless, it's fun to imagine being in a place where this kind of joyful music is a regular, albeit spontaneous (maybe Spontaneous Jazz would have been more descriptive?) occurrence.

Ry Cooder – F.D.R. In Trinidad I guess this has become an unofficial recurring feature of Faux Sounds, where I geek out over Ry Cooder. I just can't get enough. I've been trying to learn this song on the guitar, using the video below as a tutorial, and I'm even more convinced of his genius. It's difficult. And he makes it sound easy as hell. Is he the greatest singer? No, but who the hell cares? Plus, there's something about the way a lot of early- to mid-seventies records are produced, there's a special kind of warmth to them in the drums and everywhere generally. My record-shopping spree in Memphis included two early Cooder albums - Paradise and Lunch and Boomer's Story, which is oddly not on Spotify. I forecast heavy Cooder in 2014.

Wiley – Born In The Cold I've noticed recently in pop culture, especially in comedy, that the idea of a British rapper has become a kind of shorthand for something ridiculous, something everyone agrees can be ridiculed. It shouldn't be.This is one of four singles that Wiley released in 2013 on the Big Dada label, in addition to a full album for Warner Bros. Listening to them it's heartening to see there's some good stuff continuing to come out of the Grime scene in the U.K. A lot of it is very different, too - as Wiley himself will point out ("I like to be diverse and keep a good balance").

Otis Redding – Mr. Pitiful (Single/LP Version) In his interview with Marc Maron, Booker T. tells the story of hearing Otis Redding for the first time, and it's pretty powerful to imagine hearing this majestic voice live, right next to you. There are so many great singers in the Stax fold, but Otis has a once-in-100-years kind of voice. He is simply one of the best singers ever. You believe everything he says, because he sounds like he really, really, really means it.

We made a visit to the Stax Museum on our last day in Memphis, and were almost immediately glad we did. In addition to doing a great job telling the Stax story, the museum lives up to its title - Museum of American Soul Music - with an incredibly comprehensive history of the music. Highly recommended.

Willis Earl Beal feat. Cat Power – Coming Through When I got around to listening to Willis Earl Beal's debut album, I never made it past the first song.  It sounded willfully crappy to me, and I didn't understand why. This actually sounds good, and the guy is a great singer, too. And, I mean, Cat Power is your "backup" singer? Not too shabby.

Elvis Presley – That's All Right A large part of the Sun Studio tour is simply hanging out in the one small studio where everything was recorded, while the tour guide tells stories about some of what had happened there. There was an "X" on the floor where rock and roll was essentially born - whether you regard it as Elvis' first recording for Sam Phillips; or when the band with Ike Turner on keyboards recorded the first record with "distortion," because the amp had fallen off the back of the car. Plus, Bill Black and Scotty Moore are kind  of awesome. I remember, many years ago, seeing film of young Elvis live and finally understanding why he was a big deal. In the lore of Sun Studios, this is the song Elvis was singing under his breath when Sam Phillips recognized his explosive potential.

Albert King – Born Under A Bad Sign - Single/ At another point in that Maron interview, Booker T. talks about how "Green Onions" sounded ominous to everyone at Stax when they first recorded it. I can't imagine what this must have sounded like to them. Albert King's guitar playing is fierce, and his voice is perfect for this song. "Wine and women is all I crave. A big-legged woman gonna take me to my grave."

Alasdair Roberts – The Bloody Fields of Flanders / The Red Haired Boy Alasdair Roberts – Standing In Yon Flower Garden In the alternative version of my life, I think I'd like to be Alasdair Roberts.

San Fermin – Sonsick This album (another All Songs Considered discovery) is, basically, a really great way to hear some more of what makes Lucius so great - the voices of Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig together. They blend so incredibly well, and pull off this kind of thing live. San Fermin is essentially Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who puts together great music, but whose vocals hew a bit too closely to fellow-Brooklynite Matt Berninger (The National) for me.

Led Zeppelin – Ramble On Well. In my opinion, one of the major arguments against Spotify, that there was no Led Zeppelin, is now completed washed away. I'm sure I don't have a ton to add to anyone's opinion of Led Zeppelin, although I've been trying to convert my dad for a few years now. Suffice to say that these guys are simply not messing around.

Otis Redding – Tramp "You don't wear continental clothes. Or a Stetson hat." "You wear overalls!" This is the sound of really talented people hanging out and having fun. I think the real hallmark of the Stax stuff is having this perfect balance of happiness and pathos. Just perfectly balanced. "You need a haircut!"

William Bell – Every Day Will Be Like A Holiday Stax is basically just full of great music. Not everything is a diamond, but there are many jewels. After spending considerable time with the catalog, it starts to become clear that one of the great commonalities is the drumming of Al Jackson, Jr.