Not Your Mama’s Rockers

Bands that explore the definition of rock and roll, breaking down genre and expectation.

Nick Urata, left, lead singer of the gypsy-rock band DeVotchKa

Think of a rock song. Any rock song. I’m going to guess that the song you chose has certain elements. It has at least one guitarist, an electric bassist, a drummer who’s locking down the beat, and a singer with a soulful voice singing about love, lost or won.

And while there’s nothing wrong with that, today we’re going to delve into some bands that incorporate novel instruments and  ideas into their music.

A Young Bob Dylan

One of the first artists to bridge the gap between rock and another genre is someone most Peak listeners know well. I’m talking about Robert Allen Zimmerman a.k.a. Bob Dylan. From the time he dropped out from the University of Minnesota in 1961 until his electric debut in 1965, Bob Dylan played solely folk music, aiming to be a disciple of his idol, folk legend Woody Gurthrie. But as Dylan matured, so did his music, and he began to incorporate more rock themes into his work. The best example of this is definitely his most famous electric song “Like A Rolling Stone”, released in 1965. There’s a very prominent drum track on the song, thanks to Bobby Gregg, especially towards the end of the song, and of course you can’t omit Al Kooper’s impromptu position as session organist. “All Along the Watchtower” (1968) and “Hurricane” off 1971’s Desire are two more songs that feature a great folk/rock sound. To sweeten the deal, here’s an electric version of Dylan’s famous “House of the Rising Sun”:

Now, there’s someone I mistakenly neglected to mention when I was talking about some of my favorite drummers two weeks ago. Who? Billy Cobham, the Panamanian maniac. But what band does he play for? He played with Mahavishnu Orcestra, a jazz-fusion band that took a lot of rhythmic influence from Indian classical music. Take a look at this video, first of all to see how incredibly skilled Cobham is, and secondly to get a glimpse into the diverse nature of their music:

I don’t know why McLaughlin is talking so oddly, because while most of the band was from around the world he came from plain old Yorkshire, England. There’s some rock in there, some funk and a lot of violin, to boot. The Indian influence came from guitarist John McLaughlin’s studies with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. It was Chinmoy who bestowed McLaughlin with the name “Mahavishnu” which means “divine compassion, power and justice”. Here’s a track that’s a little more accessible, but equally as awe-inspiring:

Nickel Creek, from Left to Right: Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins

Switching gears now, we’re going to tone back the volume just a tad, as we get acquainted with the “progressive acoustic” (read: cool bluegrass) band Nickel Creek. Here’s their “Smoothie Song” performed live – the only one of their songs that to my knowledge has been played on the Peak:

You can already feel the rock vibe in their music. They’ve been getting steadily more progressive since their second to last release, This Side (2002). They’ve even gone so far as to include drums making them the most badass bluegrass band ever. Check out this song from their most recent album Why Should the Fire Die?

Helena

Chris Thile, who sings and was the primary mandolinist for Nickel Creek now carries on the progressive acoustic banner, releasing a fairly rock-oriented album, called deceiver, features this track:

On Ice

But despite all of the variations in rock music that we’ve seen so far, there is one rock genre that really strays from its counterparts – electronic rock. The eighties was championed by both good electronica artists like Depeche Mode and bad ones like Erasure (if you can watch this without smirking, you are a superhero). The nineties saw great bands like Moby and the Chemical Brothers. The torch was held through the aughts by some forward thinking bands like the Flaming Lips, TV on the Radio, and Ratatat.

One artist who deserves a lot of credit for his exquisitely layered songs is Martin Dosh, who by day drums for violin virtuoso Andrew Bird and by night beeps, boops and loops his way to some fantastic music. Here’s a video of him at work in his at home studio:

It’s really incredibly to watch him move from instrument to instrument, adding and removing layers as he goes.

That’s all I wanted to talk about for today, but here are some other of my favorites to whet your appetites so you’ll explore what else is out there:

Roderigo y Gabriela – Two of the most accomplished guitarists I have seen, from Mexico City – mixing insane flamenco rhythms with rock music. They’ve covered Metallica, Led Zeppelin and others. Check out some of their music in “Other Music”.

The Cat Empire – From Melbourne, Australia, these guys have managed to tame reggae and jazz and make them work together in their five piece rock band.

DeVotchKa (Russian for “Young Girl”) – from Denver is probably best known for scoring the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack, but they’ve got some great music, adding Romani, Slavic and Greek facets to a solid rock sound.

Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens – This artist gets enough weird points for embarking on a series of concept albums about the 50 United States (a project that’s currently on hold). But he’s known to throw some great instruments in his mix, from glockenspiels to horns and lots of strings.

Beat Circus – out of Boston comes this great folk-rock band. They cover such a range of styles that it’s hard to pin point what you’re listening to, but definitely worth a listen.

Owen Pallett – The artist formerly known as Final Fantasy, who I harbor a grudge against for saying in the Times Magazine, “[d]rummers ruin bands”. He goes on to say “If you’re in a mediocre band, just fire the drummer, and chances are you’ll have the best band in the world.” Other than that, he’s a fantastic artist who also uses a lot of strings, being a violinist himself, and writes songs with well thought out and elaborate orchestrations.

Here’s a beautifully complete song called “Tryst With Mephistopheles” off his album, Heartland, which came out this year:

…and if you listen closely to the track you can hear the sound of… are those drums?! It’s surprising how well they complement the song.

OK, that’s really it. Check back next week for what great concerts are happening in New York’s backyard in March.

Happy Listening,

~Josh

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PEAK KEYWORD:  MAHAVISHNU

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