Wednesday, 6 February 2013

D CDs #490: Pavlov's Vista

I've been talking about the relationship between music made by black people and music made by white people - mainly in relation to how I consume them - for a while in this series.  Given that this is a blues rock record, it's probably not surprising that this is going to come up again.  There's only so much I can say on the matter, though, so let's put it to bed here.

I read somewhere once that it's very difficult for children to appreciate scenery.  I don't know how true that is - certainly it describes my own youth very well - but the theory goes like this: when an adult gazes out upon a panoramic vista, it's not the actual aesthetics of the scene that gives them pleasure, it's the positive emotions associated with the act.  Have a happy holiday in the same or similar scenery enough times, and eventually the emotional memories develop a visual trigger.  What you see looks like places you were happy, so you're happy.

Like I say, I don't know how true it is, but I'm pretty sure that explains my own attitude to scenery, which I developed an appreciation of seemingly later in life than my contemporaries possibly because I hated going on holiday as a child (to this day I don't consider it an unambiguous positive to "get away from it all"; a lot of what I'm being asked to get away from I actually kinda like).  Whether it's a viable theory or not, though, my reasons for bringing it up here shouldn't be too tough to fathom.

For the purposes of this line of thought, the most important track on Tres Hombres is "La Grange"[1], which kicks off with 35 seconds of a blues rhythm so pure ZZ Top got sued over it, and mumbling, rolling vocals that to this English white boy at least seem to intentionally ape those of a black vocalist.

And, you know, it's nice.  Perfectly presentable.  But it's something I appreciate, rather than feel.  Then, at second number 36, the filthy guitar kicks in, with the adrenaline immediately behind.

The transition highlights both what the ZZ Top boys owe to blues, and what they've added.  What they've added, mainly, is grime and attitude.  Not more attitude, just a different one.  For all that the blues are obviously rooted in the describing of human misery, plenty of blues singers evidence a boisterousness and showman's self-confidence when performing.  ZZ Top, on the other hand, just drip with nonchalant redneck menace.

Take "Master of Sparks", for example.  That's a fairly simple song, like most on offer here, only the strangely spectral slide guitar that runs behind the band's umpteenth chugging riff really separates it from the most basic arrangement imaginable. The lyrics, though, tell a tale about a man encouraged by his redneck friends to get inside a wire cage which is then tossed off a moving truck, causing so many sparks to fly that the narrator starts to cook alive inside his prison. For better or worse, it seems to me hard to sniff that off as being swiped from the other side of the racial aisle.  Getting inside a metal cage and deliberately burning/lacerating yourself just seems to much of a white trash idea.

So is it this attitude that's making the difference, or the sound of guitars that might as well be being picked with rusty buzzsaw teeth?  Or is it just, in the end, that my thirty three years on this earth have attuned me to this approach to the blues, and not any other?  When my brain starts to shudder as the intro of "La Grange", or the very moment the strutting triumph of "Move Me On Down The Line" starts up (the track, incidentally, that's arguably the most rock and least blues of these ten slices of blues rock), am I doing anything more than linking up to a history of listening to other white men snarling over meaty riffs?

Yeah, yeah, I know.  How many roads must a man walk down?  How can a mind analyse itself, any more than an engineer can disassemble themselves and root around in the remains?  We acknowledge these mysteries, and we move on.  Like, for example, to note that Tres Hombres manages to wring a surprising amount of variation out of a very limited template, even if that variation comes in part from simply moving the slider between near-pure rock (the aforementioned "Move Me On Down The Line", the deliciously grime-streaked and defiant duet of "Beer Drinkers & Hell-Raisers") and near-pure blues/soul ("Hot Blue and Righteous", soulful album closer "Have You Heard"), rather than anything so adventurous as more than two riffs a song.  It's not perfect - I can't see why anyone would miss "Precious and Grace" if it magically disappeared, and by Sheik the repetitive nature of the enterprise is beginning to become a little too noticeable - but at ten songs and just over half an hour in length, it can't seriously be described as wearing out its welcome, and parts of it are very welcome indeed.

Eight tentacles, and I promise I'll find a new angle next time.

[1] Which is about the same Texas bordello featured in "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas", which is useful pub quiz trivia knowledge, if nothing else.  How to link Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, and ZZ Top.  Kevin Bacon has nothing on me.

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