Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6: The Blasters, "American Music"

Artist: The Blasters
Album: American Music
Year: 1980
Label: Hightones

Examples of the age old saying of "what's old is new" can be found throughout the history of nearly every artistic form, as styles recycle themselves in different forms rather often. However, usually these are new takes on old styles, and though there is often a strong resemblance, it is rarely a direct copy of the former style. As in other artistic endeavors, this idea applies to the world of music, and whether it is blues and R&B turning into rock and roll or jazz and rock forming the "jam band" sound, nearly every genre is built out of a previous style. Then again, there have been a few times in music history when an artist or genre has quite literally revived an old sound, without altering the fundamentals. Apparently, when the entire world began declaring that "rock was dead" throughout the late 1970's and early 1980's, nobody told Los Angeles natives, The Blasters. Easily one of the most tragically underrated groups in history, The Blasters brought back the energy and purity of the early years of rock and roll. Without attempting to "reinvent the wheel," the music of The Blasters could just as easily have been released in these early days, and when listening to their records, it is almost impossible to tell which songs are originals and which are covers. Quite literally every song The Blasters have ever recorded is extraordinary, yet it is their aptly titled 1980 debut record, American Music that stands as not only their finest effort, but one of the greatest albums ever recorded.

Bringing a sound that isn't quite rockabilly, yet seems to have more of a free, almost reckless vibe than some early rock and roll, one can hear sounds of The Cramps as much as The Stray Cats within the music of The Blasters. This is largely due to the fact that some of the largest influences on The Blasters were artists like T-Bone Walker, Bill Haley, and Chuck Berry. In fact, the bands' name itself was taken from the nickname for Big Joe Turner backing musician, Jimmy McCracklin. Keeping all of the musical arrangements clear and pure, the sound found on American Music never comes off as "nostalgic," as the music is as modern and fresh as anything else being done at the time. The fact that the music of The Blasters retained such and "edge" was one of the key reasons why the band was able to fit in with, and gain a large following within the punk and hardcore explosion of the early 1980's. Playing many shows with the likes of X, The Gun Club, Black Flag and many of the other local bands, The Blasters proved that the classic sound of "real" rock and roll transcends generations and musical tastes. This ability to fit in anywhere is also a testament to the amazing writing and musicianship within the band members, and alternative icon Henry Rollins once wrote of the band members, "'s a lot of talent for one band."

The Blasters take on the traditional four-man band, and at the center of the group is the Alvin brothers, Dave and Phil. The brothers share and split guitar duties throughout American Music, and both have a tone and playing style that is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether it is more down-tempo, almost country sounding songs like "Never No More Blues" or one of the many high speed, wild rock and rollers found on the record, the Alvin brothers make their case as one of the finest guitar duos in history. Bassist John Bazz is equally as brilliant throughout American Music, and his ability to deploy an upbeat, winding progression as perfectly as a slower, bluesy pine is one of the key elements that makes the music of The Blasters so fantastic. Rounding out the band is drummer Bill Bateman who is, without question, one of the most talented drummers in the history of music. From fast paced, measured beats like "21 Days In Jail" (which was added on the Warner re-release) to quite literally any other direction the Alvin brothers wish to go, Bateman is absolutely perfect on every track and there are truly few other drummers in history with as much diversity and skill. Truth be told, there is not a note missed by any of the four musicians anywhere on the albu, and each of the nineteen tracks found on American Music is absolutely fantastic, creating a refreshing musical treat that had not been heard in decades.

Along with handling guitar and songwriting duties, Phil Alvin also lends his magnificent voice for every song on American Music. His vocal approach, much like the musical approach of the band is wonderfully "old school" and one can hear traces of everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger within his vocal style. At the same time, one cannot ignore the similarities in sound to Tom Verlaine and Lux Interior among many others, and the fact that one ca hear such a wide range of influences within Alvin's singing is certainly one of the reasons why his style is so fantastic. Finding the middle ground between the clasic singing sound and the more edgy vocal style that that had come about with the punk explosion, Alvin simply blends the best of old and new into an absolutely perfect singing style. The songs themselves also share this combination of old and new, as the lyrical themes are new takes on age old ideas. Keeping things light and upbeat, the songs sound as if they could have been written three decades earlier, and this is perhaps no more true than with the masterpiece now known as "Marie Marie." Like so many of the early rock classics, the song is just an updated "boy waits for girl" theme, yet the way in which the band presents the song gives it a fantastically fresh feel. It is this ability to make the old sound new that is the true genius behind the music of The Blasters.

Truth be told, when it comes to pure musicianship and musical diversity, there are few groups that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as The Blasters. Proving that the classic sound of rock and roll was most certianly not dead, and just as enjoyable and relevant in the 1980's as it ever was, there were simply no other groups making music quite like The Blasters. Along with their unique musical approach, one would be hard pressed to find a more talented rock quartet, and their musical skill is perhaps the only thing that is equal to their unparalleled sound and style. Led by the swinging guitar work of the Alvin brothers, and the bass playing of John Bazz, the group flawlessly deploys everything from blues to funk to music that has an unquestionably country feel. Rounded out by the truly unrivaled drumming of Bill Bateman, The Blasters truly had a level of musical talent that was easily equal to that of three or four groups combined. The fact that the group was able to also infuse a bit of the punk edge into their music, as is found on "She Ain't Got The Beat" is yet another reason why the group is so musically stunning, as well as one of the key aspects in them gaining their almost cult-like following. With a sound that is both timeless and unequaled, The Blasters are truly one of the most tragically overlooked groups in music history, and one need look no further than their spectacular 1980 debut, American Music, to understand why this group deserves a status that is nothing short of legendary.

Standout tracks: "American Music," "Barefoot Rock," and "Marie Marie."

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