Friday, August 27, 2010

The Coppertone - Hidden Dreams

There are two different ways to view the blues, one is to see it as a limited musical form with only so many variations, so that when a genuinely exciting bluesman comes along, say, a Stevie Ray Vaughn or Joe Bonamassa, we end up complimenting them by degrees or on their technical veracity. The other way is to come to the blues from the emotional end, and view the 12 bar turnarounds as emotional bookends to the sorrow or lust or longing or passion of the singer. The Black Keys have been straddling this line for albums, and the reality is that very few bluesmen or women are willing to belly up to the bar and take the John Lee Hooker approach: sparse drums, unusual counts, playing behind the beat and, god help the singer, let the vocals and the guitar stand naked in space.

The Coppertone’s album Hidden Dreams takes a cue not only from John Lee Hooker but Portishead as well. Amanda Zelina’s voice, alone, has the emotional strength to stand alone in the opening tracks "Heroine" and "Nighttime Wishes," but can get placed into the maelstrom of of sound that is the fourth track, "Satisfied Mind." The drums aren’t quite John Bonham’s "When the levee Breaks", but the crunch of the guitars is utterly unexpected from the sparse blues sound of the first three tracks. Instead of pretending that the last 80 years of music hadn’t happened, Amanda elegantly, forcefully makes the case that with the blues as her base she’s going to use anything she damn well pleases for her songs.

"Heroine" opens the album, Nick Skalkos’ ambient drums shaking in the big empty room, before Amanda’s echoing voice cries out, her long vocal lines contrasting with the rhythmic guitar bouncing along, syncopated to the drums. Lacking other members to fill out the sound, we can practically hear the walls echoing their sound. And that’s the whole point. John Lee Hooker and Son House made records in shoeboxes that did nothing to take a hint of the edge off of their harrowing tales of deep south blues. In face, that ambient sound can help to define much of the sound and very few bands use it much if at all these days. Those early blues albums make you hear the room, not just the musician.

"Nighttime Wishes" is one minute and 24 seconds of blue dirge run through the White Stripes mini amp. Amanda shares Jack White’s love of miking a semi-hollow body guitar so that you can hear the damn guitar, every single atonal note, and not just the amp. And then we get emotional whip lash by walking into the hoedown of "One of a Kind." It’s the eternal story of romance and boy meets girl. Yes, I want you/and I know you want me too/I gonna getcha/ gonna make you mine/there’s two of us in this old world/but together we’re one of a kind.

In part, Zelina’s skill at the blues lies in her influences. Hooker and Son House taught her what not to play, self evident in the restraint that she shows on the song. There is nary a note wasted and quite a few that you expect that stay in her back pocket waiting for  another son

With slow rise of feedback, "7 of Spades" is practically metal filtered through the old school mike distortion once favored by Mark Sandman of Morphine. Nick’s entire drum kit is shaking providing the backbeat to Amanda’s heavy guitar riff. She teases the riff with bits of slide mixed in, something unlikely to show up in your average metal album. So much emptiness/but nothing to give/sold your soul to the devil/but you still can’t save. All the anger in the world cracks open and pours out of the wronged woman.

Hidden Dreams, a title track pushed down to the sixth track, lives and dies from the heavy backbeat, slow and steady, like a heartbeat that Amanda can sing a song of lonliness and despair over. The rhythmic touches can’t hide the heaviness of the bass here, as if Zelina has been listening to the deep depair of Robert Johnson’s thumb hitting those bass strings as the sound that grounds everything else in the world to that one thumping beat.

"Mile type of Love" takes us closer to Nashville, edging into the storytelling that has launched a thousand bumper stickers over the years. The earnestness of the love affair that might have driven Patsy Cline to tears, Amanda sings the closer to the night’s set as the love that she set free didn’t come back. So what did she do? Driven 700 miles/and picked up all the pieces/we left a long time ago. Pour another cheap beer for the drummer.

But its up to the second to last track, "Run," to fuse some of the best efforts into one beautiful dirge, the urgent tension of John Lee Hooker’s rhythms mixed with the porcelin Portishead vocals, and you have 2 minutes and 53 seconds of liquid emotion that leaves you gasping for more when it fades out. The fact that the final song, "Ramblin’," is a slide guitar drenched cover of Robert Johnson’s "Ramblin’ on my mind", should lay Zelina’s intentions laid bare. And the beauty of it is, given the high stakes gambling that she’s taking on with her influences, The Coppertones do an excellent job of ceding not a bit of ground

Its not a long record, but delicious from beginning to end, each track worth a listen. Damn but there are a lot of good bands up in Canada these days!

With a slide guitar and a bottle of bourbon – the fearless rock iguana

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