We’ve still got the blues

“NEW.” It was written in thick black letters across the neon green sticker, covering parts of the psychedelic smoke trails left by a vintage six-shooter. Whoever placed that small adhesive ad was either a culture critic hitting new levels of irony, or a clever shopkeeper who knew novelty meant sales. I prefer the former possibility, as it doesn’t impact my credibility as a jaded consumer ubermensch.

The sticker in question was on the package containing the Black Key’s Chulahoma, an EP released in 2006. There is no way the word “new” could apply to this album. Chulahoma is a compilation covering Junior Kimbrough’s music, a mid-century bluesman who was a major influence on the Keys.

There’s no point in going into an in depth review of the album; suffice it to say, it’s fantastic. The covers are spot on and the Keys resurrect Kimbrough’s sound, bringing it into the 21st century. Frontman Dan Auerbach manages to pull off Kimbrough’s unique singing style, while not straying too far from the Black Key’s sound. The laid-back blues guitar is now gritty and amped up, bringing out the simple elegance of Kimbrough’s guitar riffs — they will get stuck in your head.
Try tracing back all the catchy, minimal riffs that have gotten stuck in your head over the past few years. You’ll notice that something has happened to the blues, or this decade, or more likely both. Blues, with its African-American roots, has been a mainstay in the periphery of music, each generation having its own artists and artistic reimaginings. This time there’s been a curious fusion of blues with alternative rock, pushing the twangy southern sound ever closer to the mainstream centre.

Blues met minimalism when the White Stripes released the De Stijl album in 2000. The fusion of mid-century minimalist aesthetics with the heartfelt guitar of the blues comes through best in the first few songs, especially “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” and “Apple Blossom.” The slide guitar, the catchy riffs and minimal composition create a distinctive sound that reflects what inspired the Stripes. Stranger yet, this record marks the beginning of a trend.

The Black Keys formed shortly after the release of De Stijl, and similarly built their sound from a blues base. Like early Stripes records, there is a definite garage-rock aesthetic, but where the Keys differ is in their characteristic playing style. Early Black Keys records are very bluesy, reminiscent of Junior Kimbrough’s music, but clearly influenced by life in a modern rock-culture. The lyrical and thematic content reflect their roots, dealing with traditionally blue subjects: lost love, world-weariness and gettin’ along. Their later albums lean more towards rock, but there is an unmistakable blues sound underlying every composition.

The fusion of blues and alternative rock inspired other artists, who added their own touch to the rock/blues syncretism. One of the most interesting and newest sounds belongs to the Pack A.D, a group formed in 2006. The Vancouver-based band manages to shatter every stereotype traditional blues has to offer, while producing a sound that channels a different era. Becky Black and Maya Miller make up the rock duo, and their first two albums — Tintype and Funeral Mixtape — bring grungy, aggressive garage-rock together with blues. The unusual combination creates a sense of stylistic déjà vu, though the final sound is unmistakably their own. The lyrics and themes are decidedly more modern than the music itself, having little to do with classical blues content. Instead they choose to use B.C.’s wilderness as a source of inspiration, intertwining its untamed, living vastness with modern urban issues. Although their later album We Kill Computers is decidedly more aggressive, the blues’ telltale minimal sound is still at the core.

If you want to write this apparent trend off as a mere coincidence, consider the case of Seasick Steve. Possibly the last of the true bluesmen, he finally got his break this decade. He’s been playing since the ’70s, leading a life almost too blue to be true. Having left home at an early age to avoid abusive parents, wandering the United States as a hobo and playing guitar just to get by, Seasick Steve is a holdover from a long gone era. His songs are haunting in their sincerity, highlighted by catchy, traditional riffs played on a beat up three-string guitar.

So maybe the sticker on the cover of Chulahoma meant that the music was stylistically new? The music is cleaned up, turned up and sped up. The sound might lean more toward rock than blues, but the riffs say otherwise. Or maybe “new” applied to the themes? The bands bring contemporary issues into their music, making it more accessible to today’s listeners and giving the genre a new lease on life. Or maybe, and this is a long shot — the sticker had no deeper meaning. Yeah, right.