Saturday, August 9, 2014

Music Reviews: The Coasters, Valerie June

The Coasters
The Coasters were a 50s era black rock-n-roll/doo-wop singing group who had a wonderful mix of tenor, baritone and bass voices. Musicians who were associated with The Coasters included people like later saxophone R&B god, King Curtis and guitarist Adolph Jacobs. Although they were not strictly speaking band members, it is impossible to discuss or appreciate The Coasters without giving tremendous credit to their primary songwriters and producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Similar to Greek-American R&B/blues musician Johnny Otis, who assimilated into black culture and black music so thoroughly that he married a black woman, described himself as black and lived on the black side of the segregation line, Leiber and Stoller had a keen appreciation of the popular black music and culture of their time. Some people, even members of The Coasters themselves, were surprised that the duo had such a pulse on black humor and musical stylings. Perhaps this is because to a lesser extent Jewish Americans were also cultural outsiders and had their own rich tradition of using sardonic humor to mask social commentary. In any event The Coasters' voices and instrumentation were a perfect fit for Leiber's and Stoller's lyrics and music. Stoller often composed at the piano. He played piano on some recordings. The band name came from the fact that the members were all from the Los Angeles area but did not achieve success until they signed with New York based Atlantic records. Some of the early Coasters' music was actually recorded by the group The Robins, two of whose members became founding members of the Coasters. Leiber and Stoller wrote for the Robins as well. They also wrote Hound Dog and quite a few other pop, rock, and soul songs.

As mentioned, much of The Coasters' music could be understood as fun uptempo dance music. Much of it had hidden meanings. If you happen to be fond of deep male voices this could be the best group you haven't heard of as The Coasters had very prominent bass and baritone parts sung by such band members as Dub Jones, Billy Guy and Bobby Nunn. I'm talking DEEP. Even the group's primary lead/tenor singer Carl Gardner, had a very resonant voice the likes of which is a little bit harder to find today. The song Riot in Cell Block #9 has bass vocalist Bobby Nunn singing lead. It lifted the sound effects from the radio show "Gangbusters". It also swiped the then popular blues stop time riff from Willie Dixon's Hoochie Coochie Man to paint a picture of a prison riot. Although the song is somewhat humorous and does not explicitly mention race, most people in 1950s segregated America probably didn't miss the overtones of a racial uprising or slave revolt. This could be why when white singer Wanda Jackson did a cover of it, she changed the POV so that the song was glorifying the brave (and presumably white) prison guards instead of the (obviously black) prisoners who were telling their friends to "pass the dynamite cause the fuse is lit". Go figure.
Hearing Down in Mexico now always makes me visualize Jessica Alba or Salma Hayek in some low rent dangerous desperado domicile doing a down and dirty dance. I first heard the song as a kid and only recently as an adult realized that the song's subject matter was really about a trip to a south of the border house of ill repute, a subject matter that later bands like ZZ Top would return to frequently. Leiber and Stoller were inspired to give a musical "latin" tinge to the story, in part by living around the Los Angeles Latino population. 

The songs Run Red Run and What about Us are semi-explicit social commentary about class and racial inequities. Leiber and Stoller had been reading about Nat Turner, among other things. I like the harmony on Run Red Run. Along Came Jones reimagines a black hero for television shows. Framed, which strictly speaking was a Robins song, is another piece about an unfair justice system. Smokey Joe's Cafe details the problems involved in trying to flirt with someone else's lady. It's similar to what Lynyrd Skynryd would do a few decades later with Gimme Three Steps. Little Egypt finds the hero making an honest woman out of a stripper. Searchin, Yakety Yak and Charlie Brown are fun slice of life songs aimed squarely at the teen market. The narrator may be a leering lech in Youngblood but it's all in good fun, mostly. Poison Ivy is I suppose what you might call a safe sex warning song. The rap group The Jungle Brothers later used the bass riff from Shopping for Clothes. I LOVE this song. Everyone should occasionally take the time to "stand in the mirror and dig yourself". Shopping for Clothes is just the song you need if you're cruising down the main strip in your lead sled. I really like The Coasters sound and production. It amazes me that music recorded back in the 50s and 60s sounds so good today. It's not too loud. It has more bass response in the vocals than is currently popular. Of course I don't listen to much modern music so if there is anyone out there like that today chances are I wouldn't know of them. My take on much of modern R&B is that the women all sing like they're in a competition to see who can put the most vowels in any given word while the men generally sound as if someone has grabbed or crushed two of their most critical body parts. Anyway, my sonic prejudices aside I always liked The Coasters and hope you do as well.

Valerie June
It's funny how things work out. I meant to mention this singer and musician quite some time ago. Her debut major label release "Pushin' Against a Stone" came out in 2013. I purchased the CD back then but just like with books sometimes it takes me a while to get around to things. So it goes. I was reminded of her from reading about her experiences and receptions at some tour or another. So I dug out the cd and gave it a listen. 

I am fascinated by accents, especially those of women (heh-heh) and with the first note she sings it is very obvious that June is from the South. I like that she is not trying to sound as if she's from anywhere else. Actually I don't think she could. Her very strong accent reminds me of relatives I haven't seen in decades and of some I'll never see again. Accent aside she has a reedy, quirky, somewhat nasally voice that may not be to everyone's taste. It took me a while to get used to it but now I think it's something really special. Her intonation and vocal choices are miles apart from most modern R&B singers, though like the best of them she also comes out of the church tradition. I don't say she's better, just different. She's not overusing melisma. I can't really compare June to many other people. I will have to go back and listen some more. The only musicians who immediately come to mind are women like Dionne Farris, Rhiannon Giddens, Dolly Parton, Macy Gray, or Lauryn Hill. June describes her sound as "organic roots moonshine music". I guess that says it all. Labels don't really apply. She seamlessly mixes and crosses such genres as soul, R&B, gospel, country, blues, black string band music, folk, bluegrass and more. She's also a guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. You can hear her instrumental skills a bit more easily on the solo or acoustic cuts.
The cd is recorded well. There's clarity without too much volume or treble. Such heavy hitters as keyboardist Booker T. of Stax fame and guitarist Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys guest on this release. There might be a tad too much Auerbach as he also gets songwriting and production credits and apparently takes a few solos but again overall this is a solid piece of musical work. I will have to go back and find June's self-produced cd's but the way it usually goes is either they won't be in stock or will only be available for insane amounts of money. Although the cd may put you in mind of everything from 60s beehive bedecked girl soul revues to Appalachian front porch singing groups and more I found that the different styles all fit together: primarily because of June's truly distinctive voice. If you're open to music that's a bit off the beaten path you could do worse than to give this a listen. It's nice to see someone make a successful debut singing in their own voice and not letting their image become overly sexualized. For my money Somebody to Love and You Can't Be Told are the cd standouts! Somebody to Love could be an answer song to King Floyd's Handle with Care. I am looking forward to hearing what June does next.

Somebody to Love   Wanna Be On Your Mind Pushin Against A Stone 
You Can't Be Told  On My Way  Tennessee Time (Live)  
Working Woman Blues (Live)  The Hour
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