So much of listening to music is about context. The same tune can sound completely different depending on where, when, and how you hear it. Equally, there is some music for which such petty considerations fade, music so ubiquitous it's virtually timeless and placeless.
For example, I can't remember the first time I heard a Bob Dylan record. His music seems to have always just been there, to exist on a higher plane, untouched by mere day-to-day circumstance. Which is not to say that context has disappeared entirely, just that it takes some major shift to make music like this seem new, to let you hear it with fresh ears.
Luckily, it turns out that moving from Britain to the United States has given me exactly that kind of jolt. Since arriving in San Francisco just over a year ago, I've been given a whole new perspective on the American music I once heard from afar, particularly artists such as Dylan whose music is steeped in the history of the place.
What was once vague and distant, like a half-remembered story from my youth, has been reinvented as something rooted in a specific place, much more real, concrete, and suddenly relevant.
Which got me to thinking, what precisely is Americana? It is a hard concept to pin down. But that's also one of the things that makes American music so fascinating, as these three recent albums demonstrate.
Laura Cantrell: Planes And Boats And Trains
Nashville-born New Yorker Cantrell pulls off the remarkable trick of reminding us what's great about country music while simultaneously helping us forget all that's bad about most of its modern incarnations. Better still, she steers us on this path with such an easy grace that you almost don't realize it's happening.
Her latest download-only album of covers is based around the theme of travel, so it was fitting to first hear it while driving through the countryside around Tahoe. In a place like that, Cantrell's elegant, bewitching voice singing "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down / Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee" makes perfect sense. The effect is, like the landscape in that part of Northern California, both delightful and dramatic.
The songs are drawn from disparate sources, ranging from the predictable (folk legend Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald," quoted above), to the unexpected (a haunting version of New Order's "Love Vigilantes"). But none seem odd or forced, including the title track, a perfectly weighted take on the Bacharach and David song, which brings out its delicate emotion without ever turning saccharine.
Trains and Boats and Planes is available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and eMusic.
Blind Willies: Everybody's Looking For A Meal
Imagine the White Stripes driven by the fevered folk of Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and you might get some idea of where the Blind Willies are coming from. Duo Annie Staninec and Alexei Wajchman have brought a punky attitude to bear on songs whose templates have long histories.
Alexei's voice drawls and snarls over agitated guitar, while Annie's fiddle playing gives the music it's whirling, devilish heart. Like Meg and Jack before them, they combine to create a sound bigger than the mere sum of their parts. High points include the rich, sneering sarcasm of "Mom Says No," the bluesy, Jagger-esque swagger of "Shark Out of Water," and the dark gypsy sorcery of "Sinners Medley."
The line between the past and present is muddied in the melée: You can as easily imagine "If You Was a Good Pimp" being penned in a dingy prohibition-era juke joint as by Snoop Dogg. It's this sound, of traditional music being seized by musicians with new, fiercely held ideas of their own, that makes this album so invigorating.
Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago
Bon Iver started building a steady snowstorm of praise for their debut album even before it was released early this year. However, despite the presence of some twanging banjo, it isn't exactly typical Americana. It sounds more like a downtempo, acoustic version of a TV on the Radio album, if you can imagine such a thing. There are modern rhythms (the subtle, insistent electronic thump that drives "Lump Sum"); unusual arrangements ("The Wolves Acts I & II," which starts with a simple strumming guitar, but ends up tripping and clattering in all sorts of directions); and, all the while, multitracked falsetto vocals that reach for notes and emotions far beyond the typical range.
Despite all this, it's also unmistakeably American and rural; it is Americana in the simple sense that it couldn't have been recorded anywhere else. The album is the result of three months Justin Vernon, the band's creative force, spent writing and recording in a cabin during the remote desolation of a Wisconsin winter. It is no surprise, then, that it is filled with isolated longing and space, as well as a wonderful, raw honesty on tracks such as "Skinny Love" and "Creature Fear." It is an album to treasure, wherever you are.