Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Daniel Merriweather: New Blues

This posting is well over due. I meant to write it about two months ago but it got lost in all the other stuff I have been doing especially the creative writing. I hope to be able to post a steampunk (or as Michael Moorcock prefers, a 'steam opera') novella next month. In the meantime, as noted in recent postings I have been listening to a lot more mainstream pop music and critiquing some of it as I have been going. Perhaps it is my age, but some of it seems very silly. There is strong music around and possibly as a reaction to rap music in rock seems to be having a revival. Muse, Green Day, The Kings of Leon, The Lost Prophets all seem to have become mainstream even though some of their songs are challengingly about sex and politics. The 1980s revival is patchy but provides a bit of variety to another slew of talent show winners and losers, especially solo female artists, though even Alexandra Burke seems to have adopted a rockier approach to dance music and it has given her a No. 1, with something a bit better than another Whitney Houstonesque power song.

Anyway, my focus in this posting is none of these, but a man who is very difficult to categorise. Wikipedia lists him as performing 'r&b and acid jazz' which is a rather eclectic mix. Of course, r&b, these days bears very little similarity to 'rhythmn and blues' of say the 1960s and is really more about rap music with less rap. There is a clear identification between r&b and black American culture so it has become a catch-all. The references to getting rich and having lots of sex, to some extent can be related back to such sentiments in soul music of old, though sheared of any real heart and certainly any real tension or trauma. In addition, the female perspective is generally missing from r&b in a way it was not from many soul songs.

I think this is what really struck me when I came across 'Red' by Daniel Merriweather. To British listeners his name makes him sound like a folk singer from Somerset and with Seth Lakeman with pop/folk crossover with 'Lady of the Sea' in the past year and Mumford & Sons more recently, you could be forgiven for thinking Merriweather was another, that is until you hear him sing. His career is interesting, he is in fact Australian, born in Melbourne in 1982. His music has been eclectic, encompassing r&b (he supported Kanye West on tour) and some rap on his records (not by him), yet he appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2008. He has done a lot of work with producer Mark Ronson who in himself is difficult to categorise musically but whose greatest hit in the UK has probably been Amy Whitehouse's cover of 'Valerie'. Merriweather sung on Ronson's version of 'Stop Me If You've Heard This Before' (originally by The Smiths) which is an incredibly camp song, though even there Merriweather provides the heartache in his singing especially in the line 'I love you only slightly less than I used to'.

'Red' really showed off Merriweather's talents and added another element to his musical persona. As with many white male singers with a rich voice, I assumed he was black before I saw the video. In fact he is a rather baby-faced (though also scarred) man who looks like a rockabilly, the clothes he wears makes you think he just stepped out of a pick-up truck somewhere in Kentucky. He does look like he is on the verge of tears at time, but the emotion he conveys in his singing comes over as authentic. 'Red' is almost a song about torture, seemingly about a man whose female partner is suffering depression or some kind of mental breakdown and he is at his wit's end trying to work out how to deal with this and also how to help her recover. It is not a theme for an r&b scantily-clad women dancing round the pool video, and naturally the video is dark, simple but powerful. Merriweather shows his vocal range and really packs power into his singing. You really feel he is working for his pay in a way that Tinchy Strider, for example, as yet, has never done. 'Red' got into the top 10 in the UK charts, despite being very different to a lot of other tracks around at the time and I think will endure as a song.

In seeking my own categorisation for Merriweather's song, I came back to The Rolling Stones, not the bloated stadia-filling performers of now, but them pre-1973. A lot of early Rolling Stones is original rhythmn and blues covers of US performers with a style that you could believe you were hearing them performing live in a bar. In line with issues of the 1960s a number of the songs they released in 1966 are about mental health, especially '19th Nervous Breakdown' (1966), 'Mother's Little Helper' (about tranquilisers - 1966), 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?' (1966) and, of course, 'Paint It Black' (1966). Other melancholic tracks include 'Heart of Stone' (1964) and 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' (1969). They have more positive songs, and that soul-influenced references to sex, as in 'Let's Spend the Night Together' (1967). By the 1970s they had moved away from the introspective material (I suppose you can even put 'Get Off of My Cloud' (1965) in there even though it is a forceful tune) to make more explicitly rocky and positive songs.

I feel what runs through both 'Red' and this Rolling Stones material is a blues baseline. After all, blues is about unhappiness and the burdens of life. It is music that is about resilience despite all those challenges. Rhythmn and blues moves it on, gives it a more popular musical setting, more accessible to the average listener, but it does not tear away the blues sentiment in the way that contemporary r&b seems to have done entirely (though even then occasionally as with 'I'll Be Missing You' (1997) by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans it does remember you can have a heart and that song stays just the right side of being schmaltzy). I doubt Merriweather and 'Red' will spark off blues flowing into current popular music, but it is nice to have heard a strong performer and hear a song which is about something more than how many women the singer can sleep with or how big his car is.

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