Take Five: Week 2

Son House – Grinnin’ in Your Face

I found this week’s first song on the “Topdog Underdog” soundtrack – a compilation of music that accompanied the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play by Suzan-Lori Parks. Son House was one of the founders of the Mississippi-based Delta Blues, preceding and instructing such well-known blues guitar greats as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. He moved north to New York later in his career and abandoned the guitar, giving performances that relied only on his wavering, mournful voice.

In this song, House abandons all form of instrumental accompaniment and adds only a few insecure handclaps to keep time while he pours his soul out to the audience in a ghostly chant. “Bear this in mind,” he pleads, “a true friend is hard to find. Don’t you mind people grinnin’ in your face.” Thoughts as deep as his voice.

AM/FM – Yours Recklessly

Inspired by archaic American folk ballads, “Yours Recklessly” presents us with a modern retelling of a bizarre progression of history. There is no one story within the song, but rather a greater consciousness of the cycles of past and present and the anomalous occurrences that have come before us. Brian Sokel, originally from the band Franklin (which specialized in intelligent, low-production punk harkening back to its late ’70s/early ’80s origins) offers a new, acoustic approach to beautiful music.

This song begins with cheerless, resonating guitars, almost as bare as Sokel’s restrained singing: “when fall breaks back into winter I will love you most of all.” He sings with a female voice that almost always doubles the melody an octave higher, rarely breaking into a joyful harmony. Halfway through the song, the mood shifts to one of celebration rather than stern contemplation, gathering the emotional outbursts of intimacy after escaping the weight of the past. After enduring it all, it seems that Sokel “will be yours, recklessly.”

DJ Hi-Tek featuring Mos Def and Vinia Mojica – Get ta Steppin’

Hi-Tek has already done much for the development of modern hip-hop, lending a hand in the production of Black Star, Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s cooperative effort. Now Hi-Tek engages us in a toned down, simplified love song conceived as a dialogue between two subdued dancing partners.

As Mos Def and Mojica harmonize over a two-step, Hi-Tek fills in the background with a smooth, scratched vinyl rhythm that seems to illustrate the sensuous fluidity of two bodies fused together in motion. The words sung by Mos Def and Mojica gain beauty in their repetition, along with such unique observations as “darlin’ you look so fine, you do, smellin’ like Tunisian Myrrh.” The song can be broken down into the fundamental elements of beats, bass, and vocals, but Hi-Tek masters the balance of all three, creating a song that inundates the listener in the soft tranquility of a perfect urban groove.

Sixteen Horsepower – Outlaw Song

Sometimes we come across images of frightening and disturbing beauty that confuse our thoughts and emotions, inspiring fear and wonder at the same time. Sixteen Horsepower does the same thing in the eerie calm and melodious passion of “Outlaw Song.” It originates from a traditional Hungarian folk song regarding a nightmarish vision of Kafkaesque persecution and abandoned love.

Sung by David Eugene Edwards (who has a voice amazingly similar to Michael Glabicki’s of Rusted Root) the song assumes a brooding, prophetic tone that matches the sullen lyrics. As the bare banjo plays a picked ostinato in the background, Edwards croons, “I awoke and was surrounded, nine of the law stood before me, askin’ me my name and business, demanding proof of me.”

The Meters – Handclapping Song

This next song was suggested by Adam Bloch ’05. Wanna talk about influential music? No need. The Meters may take the cake as one of the most under appreciated bands in the history of funk and rap. De La Soul, LL Cool J and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have a lot to thank the Meters for. The group began to dissolve in the late 70s and two of the group’s members split off to form The Neville Brothers.

“The Handclapping Song” appeals to the pure soul of Orleans funk, accompanied by a minimalist approach to instrumentation. The Meters use a loop of handclaps to lay down the base rhythm and accompany it with a thick bass line. Singing “clap your hands now, people clap now” in unison, the group gives the tune a carefree, southern lethargy that temptingly invites the enticed listener to become immersed in their laid-back, raw groove.

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