Sunday, June 05, 2005

Road Music

The trip from Wichita to where my children live is 14 hours, and because of that, I pick out and take along a small but eclectic selection of CDs to listen to--this time, I took 8. In the post below I mentioned the Coltrane and Tori Amos discs; the others that I WON'T be writing about at length here were Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi; Geri Allen, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, The Life of a Song; Yes, Fragile; and Robbie Robertson, Contact from the Underworld of Redboy.
These aren't bad discs by any means, but as I listened to two albums in particular, listed below, it struck me that certain albums just work better as the soundtrack for long road trips.
First, some words about what doesn't work well. I long ago gave up taking classical music with me; my car isn't nearly quiet enough for it. Most jazz doesn't work well, I've found--Geri Allen's piano playing on her CD, as one example, seemed to demand more of my attention than the drive permitted (though that wasn't the case with McCoy Tyner's sparer playing on A Love Supreme). You'd also think that your typical rock or country album would work well; but for me, two obvious candidates, AC/DC's Back in Black and Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison, don't hold my attention enough due to their rather same-y sound throughout the albums. Cash's album has the added disadvantage of being a rather poignant listening experience.
So: what does work well? For me, what works best is a mix of styles within the album. But more precisely, I like for the music I listen to to fit the cultural landscape I'm passing through, and since my route takes me through the Deep South, I'm especially fond of music from or influenced by music from that region: the blues, Cajun and zydeco, of course, but also that blurry genre straddling rock and country we call "roots music." Also, I like to take music from African groups to listen to when I head South.
But what follows are the two albums I especially looked forward to hearing as I drove this time around.
Son Volt's first album, Trace (go here for a look at the album) is a frequent companion of mine on my trips south. Band leader Jay Farrar's lyrics' obsessive themes are the road, time, mutability, and a kind of populist existentialism; his musical styles range from straight country to, on "Drown," one of those Shoulda-Been-A-Hit kind of songs, garage-band crunch. He plows the same sort of territory as Neil Young, even sounding a bit like a lower-register Young, though without the hippy vibe. A great soundtrack for the impovrished but proud land I drive through.
Little Feat's live 1978 album, Waiting for Columbus (reissued and expanded in 2002 by Rhino, God love 'em), grows larger in my estimation every time I hear it. It is difficult to describe the Little Feat sound: imagine a middle ground between the Allman Brothers, the Meters, and a jazz band like Weather Report, and that might be it. It rocks, but the funkiness and jazziness keep this music melodically agile and rhythmically complex. And, once again, this band's musical roots have their origin in the very land I drive through.
I invite readers so inclined to list other albums they prefer listening to while driving or travelling. And to my European and Asian readers: do your respective homelands have a tradition of "road music," songs about the act of overland travelling? Or is that an American tradition? I ask this because, a few months ago in an NPR story about Chinese truckers, the reporter was surprised to learn that they had no such music. But when he played Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" for them, they liked it.

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Raminagrobis said...

May I be the first to say congratulations on your successful re-entry into the blogosphere!

'On the road' music is a distinctively American phenomenon, I think, like the 'road movie' or the 'road trip' or the 'road serial killer' ;) Difficult to imagine the same kind of cult of the road taking hold on this tiny, overcrowded island: it's all about vast, open spaces and empty time; travel as something in itself and not just a means to an end.

It's an aspect of American culture that appeals to me immensely, I must admit. Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, great movies. Wide vistas, blue skies, open country.

As for music, recently I've been listening to some whoopin' harmonica blues by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee (as featured in the film Stroszek). I can just imagine myself driving through Tennessee in an open-top '56 Chevy listening to that. It's difficult to get the same effect when you're driving down the hard shoulder of the North Circular in the drizzle at 10mph on the way to South Mimms Services.

Oh, and I don't drive: I cycle.

John B. said...

Thanks for the welcome back.
I suppose what you say about "road music" being "distinctively American" is so. In a place like Europe, where distances are rather constrained, I wouldn't guess that travelling qua travelling doesn't rise to the level of awareness as one is journeying. The destination is reached before the journey can be contemplated. Or maybe Mr. Syzygy can set us straight(er) on this, if he's reading?

fearful_syzygy said...

Welcome back, John. It's been kinda desolate around here as well.

I'm slightly pushed for time right now, and I will reply properly w/r/t/ travelling qua travelling, but in the meantime just two things (Hoss): Are you familiar with the album Secret South by 16 Horsepower? It's truly excellent and I think it might appeal to you whether you're on the road or in your front room.

The other thing is that I don't actually hold a driver's license (something which will have to be remedied once I get to the States, methinks, although who the hell drives in New York?), but one of the ways I really got to know albums when I was back in Denmark last year and indeed while I was in Italy, was listening to them through headphones when I was walking the dog/to someone's house halfway across town. And now that I commute to work every morning (at least until Friday) I make good use of my iPod.

Yes, I know, I caved in. But the whole bells on my toes thing just wasn't working out for me. ;)