It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
After all the long years of struggle to understand how she wanted to present herself on stage, the irony of Pearl, like her nickname, is that Janis was plucked from her shell at her most pearlescent. With the Full Tilt Boogie Band behind her, and a producer (Paul Rothchild) who empathically understood her mood swings, she was able to blend the ramshackle roar of her first band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, with the R&B professionalism of the Kozmic Blues Band. She had become assured and confident in her persona, despite the self-doubts she may have had when she returned to her hotel room late one ill-fated night. That the persona was female might have been beside the point, except it couldn't be, and her visionary song and commitment to her muse continues to light torches all over the world.
With her feathers and sashay, her salty suggestives and ribald way with a blueswail, the tradition that Janis embraced hearkened back to a time when the blues were emerging from the shadow of the medicine show. Born in 1886, Gertrude "Ma" Rainey made the rounds of the vaudeville circuit before recording with Paramount Records in the mid '20s, developing an urban blues style that placed her alongside such seminal musicians as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Her earthy realism ("Trust No Man," "Jealous Hearted Blues") mingled with the whoop-de-do that the act of blues expression brings (the lascivious "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom") provided Joplin with a role model and modal that would define her character as it took shape on the stages of San Francisco's Summer of Love. And Ma's universal appeal was hardly confined to the crossroads of Haight-Ashbury. When poet Allen Ginsberg discovered that his illness was terminal and he had only months to live, he came home from his doctor and put on Rainey's "See See the Rider Blues," to assuage his pain and soothe his eternal soul.
Of all Joplin's peers from the late '60s, Tracy Nelson was perhaps closest in musical recipe, though hardly in temperament. During her tenure with Mother Earth, and in her later solo career, she seemed settled, comfortable in her own skin, moving to a rural farm outside Nashville from which she provided a steadfast, pastoral presence that spoke of lineage and depth, negotiating undercurrents of emotion with a knowing sense of quiet triumph. Among her many exquisite performances, "Temptation Took Control Of Me And I Fell," is a masterwork deeply felt, couched in the understanding of hard-won experience, sung by a voice not afraid to wear those trials on its sleeve.
There was always an Appalachian twang in Janis's delivery. I came to Laura Gibson through her Six White Horses EP, where she sang mountain ballads and ye olde folk songs in a voice that seemed at once wizened and innocent, one moment porch-rocking with a pipe in her hand, the next a child placing its hand in a gentle stream. Though the arrangements on La Grande are more sophisticated, adventurous and quirky — the looping maze of "Lion/Lamb," the surface noise scratch and dizzying backing vocals of "the Rushing Dark" — she doesn't lose sight of her hillock'ed melody. I hear her through this prism of beguiling wonder at the music that springs from her, as if she is singing each song for the first time. "Milk-Heavy, Pollen-Eyed" is spell-weaving, affecting in its unadorned truths; "Crow/Swallow" has an aviary sense of flight, tying it to Janis's version of "The Cuckoo," gliding on air currents of simple orchestration; "Feather Lungs" breathes her campfire song into the night. Truly special.
Mother Mover and Shaker
I like my fried chicken with Shake 'n Bake, popping and sputtering in a pan full of oil, just like the time I once witnessed Bo Diddley cook up a mess of legs and wings on a hot plate in an R&B hotel off Times Square. The Shakes, whose call-and-response has spiraled by word-of-mouth since they burst upon the scene less than a SXSW ago, have a fine sense of heritage about them, bedrock soul that beckons and cajoles till you're impelled to the dance floor; but they are hardly bound by what has come before. There is a vibrancy to these songs that tosses nostalgia and genre references to the fore and aft, the headlong rush of Brittany Howard's ebullient cakewalk ripe for the slicing. There's a lot of Stax chop and a bass drum that has room to reverberate while the guitar lick chiks and Howard's wail covers all like an enveloping cloak. "Wait," she commands in "Hold On," but how could anyone in the face of the Shakes?
The forked tongue of lightning, responsing thunder. Miny Parsonz unleashes storms as she stands in the prow of Royal Thunder, an Atlanta band that loves a good careen along the shoulder of the heavy rock higher-way. She can howl with the best of them, as the band lays down pulsating riff after riff, and the frontal assault has a bracing lift to its pummel. They skirt the noisecore of metal but share as much kin with Southern brethren and sistren like Drivin' and Cryin' or even Superchunk; and reference British moltens like the immortal Sabs and Maiden before engaging full thrust and velocity. "Whispering World" is more shout-it-out than its title would suggest, and had me headbanging in the kitchen as I was doing the dishes. Miny isn't afraid to slow it down ("Sleeping Witch," "Drown") but you know she's only awaiting the full throttle roar to come.