Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blues and Jubilee

At first blush it might seem the key appeal of a native-born Israeli blues singer is the novelty. But that preconception ignores the role that lament over suffering has played in the history of the Israeli and Jewish people. Read a lament psalm sometime and imagine the words in front of a 12-bar score, with the appropriate John Lee Hooker wail inserted where needed.

Bat-Or Kalo fronts a three-piece outfit named after her that offers far more than novelty, showcased in her first full-length album, Dear John.  Kalo has a great gritty growl in her voice but can also be smooth, and her guitar work adds the pyrotechnics that have helped define the genre. The opening title track is one of the strongest, as Kalo subverts the "Dear John" letter stereotype by writing about how much she misses the man who has left. She adds a high-tension grunge tone to her playing that increases the urgency of her complaint and develops the mood of the song even more. "Heartbreak" sounds like what might have happened if Messrs. Lieber and Stoller wrote during the 1980s for Stevie Ray Vaughan; both the tune and the "I get so lonely I could die" refrain pay tribute to the song's 1950s ancestor "Heartbreak Hotel." Songs like "Blue Chevy" and "Marie" demonstrate a good command of the genre's more laid-back style as well, with the latter having an almost southern-rock boogie feel. Throughout the record, the no-frills bass-and-drums rhythm section gives Kalo a solid foundation for her singing and soloing in the way that quality blues records have always done -- even B. B. King wouldn't sound like B. B. King if he was backed up by schmucks.

There's still room for growth. Kalo sticks with some of the familiar themes of the blues -- romance lost and found and similar cares of the heart and could branch out as other blues musicians have done into a wider range of topics. She addresses the idea of redemption, but since she does so in overtly Christian language ("Oh Father") it's hard to know if she's singing about redemption as she understands it or just using the phrases. It would be fascinating to hear how some of Kalo's native Israeli and Jewish cultural themes might interplay with the blues format, but that point I maybe edge too close to wanting her to make the record I want her to make instead of the one she wants to make, which isn't a justified critique. And sometimes there's a little too much influence and not enough sleeve; the "feels like dying" wail in "Oh Father" sounds pretty much exactly like the same words over the same guitar crash that winds up Chris Isaak's "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing."

Novelty might be the thing that draws attention to Bat-Or Kalo and her music, but the impressive singing, playing and performance should easily turn samplers into fans and give them good reasons to stay in the fold.

ETA: Yes, I know "Heartbreak Hotel" was one of Elvis' hits not written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, but by Tommy Durden and longtime Oklahoman Mae Boren Axton. But they wrote a bunch of others ;-)
Commercial success came to John Cougar in 1979 when Pat Benatar recorded his "I Need a Lover" on her top-15 debut and he scored a  top 30 single with that song. In 1980 he charted "This Time" and "Ain't Even Done With the Night," helping cement his sales even if critics shot the record down. 1982 saw American Fool, which put "Hurts So Good" and "Jack and Diane" on the charts and earned "Johnny Cougar" enough commercial pull to get his real surname "Mellencamp" added to his stage name.

"Jack and Diane" was the pattern for some of his most successful records, critically as well as commercially, as he returned to stories of the midwestern heartlands like his native Indiana and of the people who lived there. With 1985's Scarecrow, which opened up Mellencamp's longtime advocacy for beleaguered family farms and then in 1987's Lonesome Jubilee, Mellencamp hit the peak of his career as far as sales and public recognition were concerned.

Scarecrow had some hints of the kinds of songs that would fill Jubilee in "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Minutes to Memories," but both of those songs were a lot more rock-sounding than would be heard on Jubilee. Mellencamp added accordions, fiddles and other acoustic instruments to his band to create a sound that mixed folk music and rock elements without being that wimpy little hybrid called "folk-rock." Yes, there's a fiddle on "Paper in Fire," (the awesome Lisa Germano) but there's still Kenny Aronoff's powerful snare driving the song forward at a rock tempo.

Lyrically, Jubilee's strongest songs stay in the same fields as "Jack and Diane," "Pink Houses," "Rain on the Scarecrow." "Lonely Ol' Night" and "Small Town." They all talk about a small-town kind of life that was repeated many times over throughout large parts of America, but replacing blind nostalgia with a bittersweet sigh. "I hope they're not laughin' too loud," he says of his own children when they hear his reminiscences about the days hanging around at the club "Cherry Bomb," "when they hear me talkin' like this to you."

Such songs carry political and cultural weight as well, and "Small Town" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" from Scarecrow especially seemed prone to adoption by politicians of different stripes. They were probably more humanist than political, though, investing their energy in the conditions of the people suffering economic hardship or other problems. "We Are the People" from Jubilee continues the same idea, with Mellencamp singing gestures of empathy from people of all walks of life who may have to deal with their different issues. The world of the mid-80s made for "Hard Times for an Honest Man," rather than just a poor one. Honest men and women struggle to keep their peace of mind and integrity in a society that, at all levels, seems to reward pragmatism and expedience much more readily and lavishly.

When Mellencamp leaves the human arena for larger ideals, the message gets muddier. "Hotdogs and Hamburgers" and "Down and Out in Paradise" may be clearer than Scarecrow's indecipherable "Justice and Independence '85," but that's not saying much. They may suffer from Mellencamp singing less about what he's for (the dignity of everyone, including those the fast lane and top tax bracket may forget) than what he's against. Perhaps he has an idea in his head of what he wants to say but can't find the right words to let others know what that is. Or it could be that whatever mix of lyrics, singing and playing makes some of the former songs catchy and meaningful just isn't in the latter ones.

Lonesome Jubilee was, as mentioned above, the peak of Mellencamp's commercial success. Creatively, he spent most of the next 20 years releasing a series of albums that tried to live up to the best of the '85-'87 pairing of Scarecrow and Jubilee and managed only one or two solid songs per record at best. In the mid-oughts, Mellencamp moved into a much more stripped-down folkish sound but somehow found a way to recapture the depth of his mid-80s rocking best. Some meditations, some midnight reflections and some little ditties about everyday folks dealing with the world around them offered some of his strongest records in a long time, whether people bought as many of them or not.

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