Sep 20

#12: Every word seemed to date her

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Roots and Americana don’t make up much of my musical diet – too fibrous – but I’m delighted we’ve got enough for an entire bracket of them here: it gives us something a bit different in the tournament mix. And it’s also reflective of a real 2001 trend which you couldn’t miss even if you didn’t like it – the steady swell of interest in Americana, country and other acoustic musics which had crested at the turn of the millennium, partly thanks to O Brother, Where Art Thou?…

…which, of course, heavily involved Gillian Welch, whose Time (The Revelator) LP dominates this bracket – the most tracks (the maximum 3 permitted), the longest track (“I Dream A Highway” might be the longest track we’ve EVER polled – it’s 10 seconds longer than “Rapper’s Delight”), and, though only POLL SCIENCE will determine the truth of this, quite possibly the best tracks. Though she’s rubbing shoulders in these groups with some extremely big names, it’s the austere vision of her songs and the deep, pooling held notes in her voice which set the markers and the pace here. Next to her, other arrangements seem overdone, other songs seem oversung, and occasionally both.

Otherwise it’s the veterans who hold my attention. Dolly Parton has two fine tracks from her back-to-basics Little Sparrow, reminding people that the rhinestones are a choice, not an essence. And two tracks from my own favourite album of 2001 at the time, Bob Dylan’s warm, loquacious Love And Theft, the record that makes the absolute best use of his cracked late-period honk of a voice (well, best aside from one we’ll get to in the December poll). For Welch, the past and its music are the bones under the skin of life. For Dolly, they’re a costume she knows how to wear better than anyone. For Dylan, they’re a medicine show, full of delights, bad jokes, and disreputable carnies who all turn out to be him.

The poll being what it is, there’s other stuff thrown in here too – I decided Manu Chao (the most streamed song in the bracket!) was too big and too rootsy for the Overseas selection, so in goes “Me Gustas Tu” to play a wild card role. Contemporary folk and modern country are represented by Alasdair Roberts and The Chicks. Mordant raconteur Jim White occupies a dark corner of the bracket, while Lucinda Williams brings the rock. As I said, these aren’t styles I spend much time with on the whole – but Uncut County is a fine place to visit for an hour.

POTENTIAL WINNER: It’s one of those brackets where nothing suggests “blockbuster” to me. Someone’s sure as hell listening to Manu Chao out there, though, and it would be neat to get a non-English song into the final groups for the first time.

BEST TRACK: “My heart’s not weary, it’s light and it’s free”: “Mississippi” is one of Love And Theft’s highlights, and also the one that’s the best summing-up of the LP as a whole – Dylan as a half-happy, half-rueful, somewhat-dirty old man walking through another set of self-created wreckage and tossing off one-liners as he goes.

DARK HORSE: Tempted to say “Highway” just because I’m fascinated by how far a track like that can go. But I’ll say Dolly Parton’s “Shine” – of her two songs in the group, it’s the catchier one and far less streamed, which puts it down in the softer half of the draw.

DISCOVERY: I admit, Gillian Welch’s stuff was entirely new to me – despite reading a few raves at the time which I should have paid more attention to. “Revelator” in particular was an instantly brilliant song even if I can’t work out yet what’s going on in it… but that’s often part of the appeal, isn’t it?  


  1. 1
    koganbot on 12 Sep 2020 #

    Been looking forward to getting to this writeup ’cause I wanted to see how you were rationalizing Manu Chao as “roots” or “Americana”; “the poll being what it is” is more accurate than “rootsy,” which though for all I know* may describe Chao at times, it sure doesn’t describe this song or the album it comes from. I’d categorize him as post-Clash indie-alternative and I associated him in my mind with Rancid or the Latin American rockeros or, well, Joe Strummer. And to the extent that that category often comes with a useful sense of history, I’d say either of the two Strummer songs better exemplify it. Actually, swapping one of those for the Manu Chao might have worked.

    I hate the terms “roots” and “Americana” but you didn’t invent them, you’re just stuck with them, and I can imagine you retorting “What else can I call it?” I wager you’re plenty uncomfortable with them yourself. But anyway, a lot of the old and quasi-old material that “roots” music draws on was in its time experimental and about displacement, not rootedness – and that was exactly its appeal to performers like the Yardbirds or Dylan or the Holy Modal Rounders, who were restless and discontent themselves.**

    When I heard Taylor Swift’s excellent and fucked-up “Look What You Made Me Do” I said, “Yeah, I never got over junior high school either.” So you could say that the origin experience of being bullied and losing my sense of place is part of the rich soil that nurtures people like me and Taylor – and if that were one of the shades of meaning that adhered to the word “roots,” then maybe I’d find the word usable. I once took someone I’d known in high school to Max’s Kansas City, and listening to the piped-in music she said, “This sounds like junior high but more intense.” “96 Tears” is my roots in the sense that I hated it and the way Question Mark said “cry” upset me so much it practically made me nauseous. But I came to see it and that time as crucial, fecund. (First song to ever be called “punk rock,” fwiw.)

    But the word “roots” now has a sepia tone that can’t be scrubbed away. I can imagine Gillian Welch agreeing with what I’ve written so far, but she makes Starbucks music that can’t shed the tone which makes me underrate her I’m sure, and maybe there’s a sense in which she’s playing off of rather than capitulating to the staid singing, but I’m stuck in the staidness.

    *Strange that I don’t know better, since I loved the album enough to put it ahead of Love And Theft on my Pazz & Jop; think I was disappointed by Chao’s followup and didn’t have the time or money to look back or forward in his catalog, and I should make up for that now because this track is head and shoulders above anything else in the bracket and it’s not even the best version of its melody on the album.

    **I expand on this a little bit in this old Voice article. Go here and search “blip-hop”. Btw, the one thing in the 2001 poll that has anything like a blues form is the 8-bar pattern that Dre, Storch, and Elizondo came up with for Eve & Gwen’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”

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