Roots Watch: Across the Roots Rock Rasp Divide

Barry Mazor | June 21st, 2012


There’s much that all genres and sub-genres along the American roots music space-time continuum have in common, from the most overtly pop and polished mainstream country to the most obscure flavor of traditional regional folklore or edgy roots rock. Inevitably, their fans have much in common, too—most basically, enjoying hearing favored artists take their turns and make their contributions to a sort of music with some sense of history and sense of place to it. Having written about most roots routes over the years, including publications and communities very much more attuned to one flavor than the next, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing separates one group of roots music fans from the next than notions of what vocals ought to sound like.

That divide, in my observations, tends to fall out along lines of how people came to this mixed bag of country, folk, bluegrass, blues, soul, gospel, and earthier rock ‘n roll and jazz in the first place. Some show up with experiences that tend to stress vocal clarity (or even “purity,” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), harmony, sheer vocal size (including the knee-jerk belting effect) and sometimes even vocal training—in choirs, for instance. Others come from any of a number of “ragged but right is right” environments, from festivals (or porches) featuring old time country and blues, to some of our grittier sounding churches or saloons, rock venues, and assorted Bob Dylan sound-alike contests. Personally, I’m less interested in voice per se, singers’ degree of natural vocal gifts, and more in singing, their emotional effectiveness and in smarts and choices in interpretation—how they play their hand, however it was dealt, in whatever genre. (Even where vocal chops rule, singing distinguishes singers who have those.)

If this is not much of an issue for me, it certainly is for genre-melding roots rock bands, as they identify workable venues and build distinct loyal audiences, as a string of new roots rock CD release remind me. They all appeal, or I wouldn’t bring them up here—and they fall all along the “Rasp versus Clean” vocalizing divide:

BoDeans, American Made. With some personnel changes, they’ve been at it for 30 years, and this band’s relative acceptance among mainstream country fans is likely a result of leader Kurt Neumann’s vocal fluidity even sheen.  That sound threads through the band’s varied, always rhythmic, sometimes aggressive roots rock attack (see “American” and “Shake the Fever” on this one), which owes a lot to the Bruce Springsteen E-Street band breakout years—as is acknowledged in their low-key turn on his “I’m on Fire” here, but more than a little to country pickin’, too.

Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain.  The remarkable roots chanteuse returns with her first solo CD in eleven years, and it’s one of the most accomplished and engaging vocal walks across roots genres you’ll hear in 2012. Ms. Hogan’s always had not-too-secret leanings towards jazz, since her days with the band Jody Grind in Atlanta 20 years ago, right through her years with “insurgent” country purveyors Bloodshot Records, and clear enough here—plus vocal dexterity rarely heard in the places she most often sings. Between her edgy stage presence and edgy friends, it’s as if the punk crowds never noticed the total absence of rasp and shriek. Some of those friends of hers—Robbie Fulks, Vic Chestnutt, M. Ward, Stephen Merritt—wrote the songs on this collection specifically with her vocal gifts in mind, and there’s the like of Booker T. Jones (really) and Dap King Gabriel Roth backing her instrumentally. One song’s called “We Can’t Have Nice Things,” but obviously, we can—even if it takes eleven years.

Li’l Mo & the Monicats, Whole Lotta Lovin’. There may be bands like Monica Passin’s long-thriving rockabilly outfit in a lot of cities, but hers, popular in NYC in various configurations for about two decades, has the benefit of her fetching, time-warp creating vocals—good for lilting jive, Buddy Holly-like original ‘billy ballads, and blues, too—and the twangin’ guitar of a Mr. “Hank Bones,” (whatever his mama named him earlier). This latest features that typical Li’l Mo mix, and reminds us the when there was still a lot of straight country boogie in rock ‘n’ roll, the vocal demands and results were often considerable.  And they still are, here.

Bap Kennedy, The Sailor’s Revenge.  Bap’s back, with a reminder from this Belfast native that much style setting American-derived roots rock comes from across the Atlantic. America came to know him better with his original, and it now seems, lasting Steve Earle-produced CD of 1998, Domestic Blues, and two years later, Lonely Street, made up entirely of Kennedy originals about Elvis Presley and Hank Williams (no commercial success, but the songs endeared him to fans of both who heard them). Bap’s one of the unmitigated and affecting greats of rasp, and an original lyricist, here as before.  The new cycle of Kennedy songs of a “shipwrecked heart,” produced by Mark Knopfler with much fiddle in evidence, turns towards sounds at times more Celtic than heard from this singer-songwriter in some time, but shows he can still turn simple phrases in fresh directions.

Langhorne Slim & the Law, The Way We Move. Maybe you know this Pennsylvanian’s sound from his earworm tune “Worries” used on a Traveler’s Insurance red umbrella commercial; Slim, definitely on the high and raspy end of the vocal spectrum, and has been writing and performing hooky melodies—not typically the rasp rock or general roots rock strong suit—since the late ‘90s.  The opening title tune is exuberant bang-and-stomp, smile-inducing rock, and there are soul-inflected ballads (“Fire”) that are just as pleasing. This longstanding singer and band may be obscure to you now— but I recommend checking them out. This CD’s a winning intro to what they do.

Jimbo Mathus,  Blue Light (release date: 7/17).  This favorite son of northern Mississippi has a theatrical bent, a broad range (heard in such groups as the jazzy Squirrel Nut Zippers and acoustic, old time bluesy South Memphis String Band), and a voice balanced precisely half way between the rasp and clean ends of the vocal spectrum—balanced, but never dull.  This EP’s neither about raggy blues or 1930s swing; it careens from a beaut of a country/soul ballad (the title song) to a rocker informed by Lou Reed and pure cry in your beer country (“Burn the Honky Tonk”). It’s like modern vaudeville on a 6-cut CD, and Jimbo’s all the acts.

As one experienced wabbit hunter would note, Whasspy or Othuhwise, Woots Wock Whives.

  1. monica passin
    June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you, Barry, for this lovely review and for putting me and my music in great company. And especially, thanks for being a listener.

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