There’s an electric feeling that shivers right up your spine when a singer nails your head and heart at the same time. Whether that song radiates from the artist’s illium, Sacrum or the “I’ve been to the depths of my personal hell, and I’m back to tell you about it!” You just know when it’s the real deal. When someone unearths an uncanny knack for finding your bruises and putting a thumb to them, it makes you take notice. Such is the case with John Doe and Exene of “X”, John Prine, and Alex Chilton, in my humble estimation anyway. These folks might hail from different times and places within the rock music continuum, but in my book, they all aged artistically, and experienced new stages of life. They are still-expanding musical nebulae. For John Doe, Moving deep into the California mountains, gave him the ability to focus on his land, his community and on the tools of songwriting. The result was the birth of his album, “A Year In The Wilderness.” Far from he and Exene’s 1987 release “See How We are,” Doe became less plaintive on depicting the visuals for his songs and instead embedded them adeptly into the sounds and song structures that seem to identify ‘The New Americana” Doe still uses his lyrics to “tell” the listener what to “see”but his writing became more complex and compelling for sure.
Not since John Prine have I seen songwriting this affecting and visual. In John Prine we saw a man in “some deep kind of funk”, longing or loving, whether it was for a woman or his own child, Prine’s songs, sometimes sweet, alot of times funny, share two common links with the writers I mentioned earlier, irony and brazen honesty. Mr. Prine kept it country and nailed our funny bone just when we needed it most.
Giving me shivers up my spine as a college kid, not only for his looks, but for the mere sound of his voice, Alex Chilton’s incandescent, “Big Star” paired deep suffering growls, poppy eclectic grooves with desirous falsettos. Chilton made me melt and best of all I could see a creative process at work. It’s that “well thought out” lyrical muscle that was flexed by some and now seems frighteningly flabby in most writers nowadays. What about that lyrical twist? Where are the words that make you think?
I decided to wrestle my dial from NPR just for a brief moment this morning as I was feeling a bit “song-sick.” I needed an anthem for the day. I often seek out something specifically intended to swirl around in my head for the rest of the day. All I found was a “sea of nauseatiatingly common method songwriting” or songs wantonly layered with a multitude of trance tracks with “Akon-like vocal overlays” that simply use alliteration in efforts to qualify as “the new hybrid rap.”
Even though mainstream top 40 charts seem to have lately produced a world of “word-weary copy-cats”, the musical landscape does reveal shimmers of placer. At the urging of a friend I gave a listen to the very English “Duffy” and immediately downloaded her entire album. Her voice was at once very “antique” yet freshly familiar. “A Fine Frenzy” (one Allison Sudol , apparently enamoured with the imagery of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), offers a finely tuned sweet and athletic voice. Her deft lyrics are organic, lively and refreshing and surprising in structure. Sudol’s Fine Frenzy is guilty of keeping one or two songs in my head for several days now. If you ever followed Amy Farris (how we’ll miss that lady…), whether it’s was Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women or a Brian Wilson record, you would again,found that soulful straightforward style, this time with a Viola or a violin.
While bright spots like Duffy, A Fine Frenzy and others are capturing the hearts and minds of listeners nationwide, “The singer-songwriter genre,” is alive and tangible in our clubs. A trip into Los Angeles reveals the likes of some of the current autuers: Paul Plagens, Patria Jacobs, Greg Franco of Rough Church and his “big in New Zealand” solo project: “Greg Franco’s Wandering Bear.” Also sharing a multi-directional inspired genius is Suki Ewers who brings her swirling personally lyrical songs that take off where Mazzy Star left off.
The great American art of songwriting didn’t end with Robert Zimmerman, Arlo or Woody, it’s alive and well and it’s here for the listening.
1. Paul Plagens
The”perfect mix” of all the aspects that make a songsmith shine. Not unlike a contemporary John Prine, Plagens just cannot be missed. I was invited to 2nd St. Jazz for my birthday back in June of this year, where Patria Jacobs Tex-Pate and former leader of “RubyFish” consistently hammers out one after another “Patriaworld” experiences. The lean and cool Plagens played songs such as: Lovesick Car and others. That night Paul stood out with his soulful songs and uncommon humor. He’s been a member of the rock / alt band “Greta”, and done tons of studio work for ‘more than famous folks. In addition to his own projects Plagens “sings honest” affecting well-crafted alliterative stories of real life interspersed with unexpected hilarity. He’s a treat to see and experience and in my opinion seems to inhabit that fruitful web of artists in the vein of Prine, Doe, and Chilton. Not yet having garnered the movement that the luxury of time provides, I believe he’s poised to be “that next great singer-songwriter. Obviously you should not miss Paul Plagens!
2. Patria Jacobs
“Tex-pate” (L.A. transplant or many years now) and Chanteuse of American indie pop, Patria’s swooning visceral songs define anyone’s emotional landscape. Her deft and oceanic songs are not to be missed. On her new release “Poison of the Sea” Patria’s smoky growl will have you enraptured. From her time as the co-conspirator behind “RubyFish” with Russ Chaput, to the eclectic forary into the pop/electronic visage that is her single “Do the Pink,” Patria is a purveyor of fine music of Los Angeles often found hammering out another “Patriaworld” where she spotlights great singer-songwriters and multi-member local bands. Always a great host and performer herself, she is expanding and changing the L.A. music scene.
3. Greg Franco
The L.A. Weekly called Greg Franco “An Iconic Auteur,” who began his stay on the Los Angeles scene in the very early eighties with the seminal low brow band, The Blashpemous Yellow. B.Y., sported some type of pounding and often times sweet bleating “grunky” (Grungy-Punk) type of thing… picture the musical love-child resulting from some operatic tryst between “The Minute and Men” and “Gang of Four” then you might have an idea of the sound. Crooning about the barrios of Chavez Ravine, and the dusty in-betweens of San Fernando road, Franco et. al., haunted all the venues that would have them. Venues such as The Anti-Club, the Lhasa, The Music Machine, Madame Wong’s, Al’s Bar and many others. Later the front-man for “Ferdinand”, a four piece including Laura Smith and David Guerrero of Third Grade Teacher, shook Silverlake and other venues up and down the coast with crunch alternative rock and roll that you had to eat with a fork. Franco’s current troupe, Rough Church, is a “states-living but New Zealand famous” quartet. As if Rough Church wasn’t enough, Franco must believe he’s got more hands than the Hindu god Vishnu herself, as he’s also working on his flagship personal project, “Greg Franco’s wandering bear.” You can’t keep a good man down.
I can’t wait for these interviews, and videos, which are coming soon. However, pictures are below. But come back soon and we’ll finish the gig.
Below are: Patria Jacobs, Paul Plagens and Greg Franco.