Former Clash Frontman, Wainwright Dabble In World Music
Rock ‘n’ roll could be called a musical mutt in that it has grown from the mix of influences like the blues, R&B, country, bluegrass, gospel and folk music. But rock can also be limiting, especially when it’s examined in an non-American, international context.
New releases by Joe Strummer, Rufus Wainwright and David Garza, show rock songwriters brave enough to escape those boundaries — musically and geographically — to write songs that can harness the exotic qualities of different musical styles from around the world, but without being overwhelmed by them (some delved deeper than others).
With that being said, the quality of the songs on all three albums says a lot about these artists. Although they’ve opted to use music from other cultures, each artist also avoided the Paul Simon/Ry Cooder trap of cannibalizing “world music” to hide lifeless songs.
When most punk rockers were still blindly adhering to the romantic lie that all a band needed was “three chords and the truth,” the Clash went in the opposite direction. Their vision of punk rock expanded to embrace other styles, including reggae, dub and rockabilly, and made music that proved that the Clash were a great band.
And although Joe Strummer has kept a low profile in the two decades that have passed since he was the driving force behind the Clash, his latest solo effort, “Global A Go-Go,” is a subtle fusion of rock and elements of African, Jamaican, folk and dance music. In a way, Strummer strives to formulate a new musical genre and nearly pulls it off.
Getting the record started is a folk jamboree, “Johnny Appleseed.” Set to a variant of the Bo Diddley beat, Strummer and band conjure up the feel of old time-y mountain music for this defiant song using a fiddle, mandolin and occasional vocal harmonies.
But quickly after it starts, the record moves beyond North America. “Cool ‘N’ Out” is a political manifesto delivered as a futuro-reggae song with static-ridden guitars. “Bhindi Bhagee” cruises along to a frenetic bass rhythm and is swarmed by snakecharmer flutes.
On this song and others, it’s startling how fantastic Strummer’s voice sounds. Despite almost 30 years of the rock star life, his vocals sound the same, cutting through or sliding around the melody, just like in the old days.
<ibs_related>The album is capped off with “Minstrel Boy,” a meandering 17-minute Celtic-influenced folk jam. The song is interesting, but nothing more.
Ignoring the free-form nature of the last cut, “Global A Go-Go” is a surprisingly well-conceived album. The inclusion of instruments foreign into rock music is seamless, but it’s also more than just an accent.
Also, “Global A Go-Go” doesn’t go half-way — sounding like a sample-heavy patchwork of genres — like the songs that Strummer’s erstwhile Clash bandmate Mick Jones did in Big Audio Dynamite.
These are great songs regardless of where they influence came from.
For More Info:
- Joe Strummer’s Official Web Site
- Epitaph/Hellcat Records’ Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros Web Site
- The Joe Strummer Resource (Unofficial Site)
- The Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll — A Joe Strummer Site (Unofficial)
- Westway To The World (Official Clash Site)
Given the critical success of his self-titled, piano-pop debut album and his pedigree (as son of famed singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III), many seemed ready to nominate Rufus Wainwright as a candidate for several positions as “the next ? (insert pop mastermind of your choice).”
Three short years later, “Poses” shows that the young Wainwright is still enamored with pop, but is intent on pushing the sonic territory of the genre. He also hasn’t lost his ability to develop catchy hooks or brandish some lyrical wit.
Subject wise, “Poses” is series of character-focused stories about indulgence – people who’ve sampled the good life and faced the ramifications.
This theme is presented from the start with the playful “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk.” Based on a merry-go-round melody and a smattering of sounds from some strange string instruments (reminiscent of any Tom Waits song), Wainwright rhymes about how simple pleasures become vices and then takes a shot at those that would condemn such behavior.
Another tale of a person bent on chemical destruction, the groove-centered “Shadows” is an excellent combo of Wainwright’s multi-layered vocal harmonies and gentle string accompaniment, minus any sense of pomp.
“Greek Song” finds the narrator bent on seduction. The tune sways to a waltz beat with flourishes of ethnic Chinese music.
The stand-out track is the sparkling pop of “California,” which is also the first single. Lyrically, the song is a lampoon of the Hollywood life. Wainwright can cutely incorporate lines that are amusing (“And my new grandma Bea Arthur”) and bleak (“Life is the longest death”) in the same song.
Although the record includes a cover of “One Man Guy,” Wainwright’s lone dip so far into his father’s songbook, “Poses” is plenty evidence that Wainwright’s talents and his music are unique. Rather than follow in anyone’s footsteps, he is only “the next great songwriter.”
For More Info:
Similar to Rufus Wainwright, David Garza has been called the “new Jeff Buckley,” but Buckley never wore his ’70s FM radio influences as proudly as David Garza does on “Overdub.”
Now, don’t misunderstand. The Texas-bred songwriter isn’t a clone of anyone. But “Overdub” shows an original artist belting out an eclectic batch of tunes stained with the influence of David Bowie and Cheap Trick.
Luckily, Garza has at his disposal two tools that are able to tie this odd-fitting collection together: his own malleable, sexy voice (more like Robert Plant in his higher registers than Buckley) and the flexible rhythm work of Living Colour’s Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish.
The acoustic-based opening tracks are intriguing but the lyrics — like those of stereotypical ’70s bands — are slight. Garza sounds like he’s only having fun singing the amateurish rhymes (“Go solo/ And if you feel like Jethro/ On death row/ Better call and request your own video”).
He finally gets serious for a duo of hard-driving cuts, “God’s Hands” and “Blow My Mind.” Mixing sizzling guitar chords and Eastern chants, Garza’s vocals leapfrog through the slippery wordplay. These songs are a time-warp, but ’70s rock rarely combined such disparate styles effectively.
But as quickly as Garza shows his acumen with pop-rock riffs, he pulls back with the wandering ‘Soul Custody.’ Still draped in Eastern influences, the song’s fluttering guitars bring to mind the summer-y haze of “Led Zeppelin III.”
Despite the album’s shifts, the record concludes with a few love songs spotlighting Garza’s sensual falsetto. On “Too Much,” his voice swaggers through a minimal dance-beat and piano sample. His voice goes vibrato-mad during “Bloodsuckers” as it tip-toes about the twinkle of the melody.
“Overdub” is a reminder that all should make sure that their cigarette lighters are filled with fuel.
For More Info:
- David Garza’s Official Web Site
- This Euphoria.net (Unofficial Site)
- The Discoball World (Unofficial Site)
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.