The new originals (Part 1)

1 07 2011

My oh-so-clever title comes from a bit in This Is Spinal Tap.  One of the fictional band’s early incarnations was called The Originals.  But the name was taken, so the band changed its name to The New Originals.  That little joke best sums up how I would describe those artists that find that sweet spot between sounding unique but borrowing heavily from the past.

You can count them on two hands.  Maybe you’d have to count with your toes.  There aren’t many, but they’re out there.   Some singers and musicians have the knack for taking an old sound and making it entirely their own.  They don’t sound derivative.  They don’t sound like a cover or tribute artist.  They’re not blatant ripoffs.  At the same time, they sound entirely familiar.  Part of their appeal is that they have captured the best of what came before them.

Over the years, I’ve come to love some of these performers.  I recognized that they were heavily influenced by older styles or musicians, but I never understood that I liked them as much for the fresh spin they were able to put on the old stuff.  Some of these artists have been doing this seemingly forever and others are new to the game.   Here are the new originals that I like best:

  • Stray Cats — I grew up listening to 50’s music.  I was never lucky enough to hear pure rockabilly, but I heard enough old-time rock to know what rockabilly should sound like.  Along came Stray Cats, coming somewhere out of the 50’s revival of the late 70’s (think: Grease, “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” Sha-na-na’s TV show) and the punk scene.  They had the balls of a punk band but the soul of guys like Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins.  What was original about them was. . . well. . . they just had their own style.  It can’t be stated much clearer than that.  Brian Setzer also brought something of a crooning vocal style to throw into the punk-abilly mix.  While they were throwbacks, they were just themselves.  They can’t be accused of stealing any single artists style but no one has been able to imitate them.
  • Raphael Saadiq — I admit up front, I’m just discovering his music.  I remember Tony! Toni! Tone! but I had no idea who he was or even that he was still in the music business.  But I heard talk about his newest album and got my hands on his last one, The Way I See It.  I’m blown away.  His voice: amazing.  The sound: it could have been recorded at the Motown studios in Detroit 40 years ago.  The fell: old school R&B.  The lyrics: solid.  While he’s definitely a traditional R & B artist, I don’t think he could be fairly accused of unoriginality.  In a sea of crap music, he has made fresh again a sound older than most of his fans.
  • Brian Setzer — Since his Stray Cats days, Brian has wandered back and forth between rock-infused big band or swing and rockabilly, but his most notable solo work has been with the Brian Setzer Orchestra.  Out of all the so-called new originals I like, he has admittedly been the most derivative.   He’s covered swing and rock standards as well as old Stray Cats tunes.  Where he gets marks for originality is that he made swing and big band sound like a new style.  His sound, like grunge, felt like it was born in its own time, even though it was not.  It fit its era for reasons I can’t quite explain.   He was also largely responsible for launching the swing revival in both music and dance.  Bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy should pay royalties to him for having helped (re)popularize the style.  (Note: I’m not claiming Setzer/BSO was first in time, just early, highly influential and fresh.)
  • Young Veins — From the outset, understand that I’m not saying these guys have had any significant impact on the music business.  I only know one other person that likes them (and he only knows of them through me.)   Two of the guys, Ryan Ross and Jon Walker, left Panic! At the Disco to form Young Veins, probably doing more to upset Panic! fans than to generate positive buzz about the new band.  But their album, Take a Vacation, sounds like it was recorded in 1965.  It’s 4 parts Kinks, 1 part Beach Boys.  It’s so Kinks-esque that I’m sure some would call it a rip-off.  It’s arguable.  I felt, when I heard it, that YV had managed to capture a Kinks-like groove but make it their own.  It certainly isn’t Kinks for the 2000’s.  Their sound is all 1960’s.  For my money, it lands in that sweet spot between borrowing too much and not borrowing enough.

Here’s the thing: at least in the world of pop/rock or R&B, there is nothing truly original.  The foundations were laid long ago and artists can’t play in those styles without sounding like somebody.  It just can’t be done anymore.  As Beastie Boys once said, “Only 12 notes a man can play.”  So whether something sounds fresh depends on whether the artist can trick you into feeling like you’re getting something uniquely his or hers.  These performers, in my opinion, have done that to some degree.

To be continued…

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