A Guide to the Wild Expanse of Cosmic American Music

A Guide to the Wild Expanse of Cosmic American Music

A reliably unconventional take on one of the richest traditions in the history of American song and (yes) the inspiration behind my own blog.

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Cosmic-600-5 Illustration by Gabriel Alcala

Gram Parsons is generally credited with the invention of “Cosmic American Music”—blues, country, and rock all rolled into one sparkling package. Then again, Gram Parsons also referred to what he’d wrought as a “‘country-rock’ plastic dry-fuck.” Still, it’s fair to situate Parsons somewhere near the head of the reinvigoration of American roots music that began in the mid ’60s, spearheaded by The Band and reaching its commercial peak with a series of country rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘70s. During this time, a good many performers found success combining the clarity of country with funk, blues, and R&B grooves, with the Muscle Shoals house band backing Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers selling out the Fillmore East, and J.J. Cale setting blues to drum machines.

These were artists that drew on a wide variety of American musical traditions and fused them into something…

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A FAVORITE ALBUM FOR EVERY YEAR OF MY LIFE

A FAVORITE ALBUM FOR EVERY YEAR OF MY LIFE

Oh what a difficult start to a list-making process. 1991, the year I was born, one filled with landmark releases and a general air of pop-cultural upheaval. The alleged death of hair metal, the rise of grunge and what the A&R suits would sooner or later pigeonhole as “alt rock,” the commercialization of what DIY punk bands had pioneered long before the term “indie” became the latest signifier of hipness — so many goings on and so many albums to choose from, to the point that selecting a favorite among them required a take-no-prisoners mentality and a great deal of arbitrary flip-flopping on the basis of some pretty nebulous criteria.

So what did I end up with?  Continue reading “A FAVORITE ALBUM FOR EVERY YEAR OF MY LIFE”

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: Bruce Springsteen

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: Bruce Springsteen

Not to start off on a tangent, but I find it almost impossible to talk about American songwriting from the latter half of the 20th century without mentioning a certain album not written by an American musician: Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s 1968 masterwork and the first of several records that would elevate the mercurial Irishman to the status of an icon, a work that’s been variously described as “impressionistic” and “modernist” and a litany of other inscrutable terms that are meant only to connote inscrutability Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: Bruce Springsteen”

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: John Wesley Harding // Nashville Skyline

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: John Wesley Harding // Nashville Skyline

In 1967, when everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground was going psychedelic, Bob Dylan went the opposite direction. He headed straight to Nashville, where he would make such inoffensively traditional country music that it managed to offend even those who had stuck by his side through his prior conversion to rock ’n’ roll. And while the songs of Nashville Skyline (1969) remain worthy entries in his canon — especially “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” one of the most straightforwardly satisfying songs the man ever wrote — its merits seem to be largely aesthetic rather than substantive. A more textually rich example of Dylan’s return to traditionalism is John Wesley Harding, released two years earlier, an album that sounds folksier than anything Dylan has done post-‘64 and yet, behind its stripped-down veneer, contains new depths of meaning; in fact, it’s one of Dylan’s most tightly structured and thematically disciplined pieces of work.  Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: John Wesley Harding // Nashville Skyline”

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

In October of 1961, Columbia Records signed a 20-year-old college dropout from Hibbing, Minnesota who had begun to make a name for himself in the coffeehouses and nightclubs around Greenwich Village. Six months later, the label put out his first album, a collection of folk standards that barely sold enough copies to cover the recording costs. A second album came out the following year, this time featuring almost entirely original material (eleven of thirteen tracks), and went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S. alone. The kid who wrote those songs was born Robert Zimmerman but the artist he became through writing and performing them was Bob Dylan — as in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — and the impact of his work on popular music as a whole was positively seismic.  Continue reading “BEYOND THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”

THIS ONE DUDE’S HISTORY OF ROCK, Chapter 1: “In the Beginning”

THIS ONE DUDE’S HISTORY OF ROCK, Chapter 1: “In the Beginning”

According to most historians, rock & roll — both the genre and the cultural movement — was born in 1954, when Elvis Presley recorded his career-making rendition of “That’s All Right.” Even the late great Bon Scott of AC/DC (one of the most underrated lyricists in mainstream rock, but we’ll get to that later) kicks off the first verse of “Let There Be Rock” with the immortal line: “And in the beginning, back in 1955, man didn’t know ‘bout the rock & roll show and all that jive.” Of course, Bon was probably jumping past ’54 for the sake of the rhyme — or maybe he just preferred Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” an equally monumental track released in ’55 — but you get the point: to a whole generation of aspiring rock musicians, Elvis was IT, man. And I’m not disagreeing. It just so happens that one of the first songs to embody rock & roll as a genre actually predates the cultural movement itself… Continue reading “THIS ONE DUDE’S HISTORY OF ROCK, Chapter 1: “In the Beginning””