Song Spotlight: Descending (The Black Crowes)

Song:  Descending (listen)
Album:  Amorica (1994) (listen)
Artist:  The Black Crowes

When it comes to using the blues as a modern rock influence The Black Crowes are not unique.  The Brits got there long before any white Americans did, under the guidance of bands like The Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin, infusing one of the few, truly original American music forms with pop, folk, and rock essences that made it accessible to mainstream listeners.  In doing so most of these bands brought the notion of riff-based song structures to popular music (a form that is at the heart of blues).  In some cases, the songs lifted the lyrics and riffs of blues staples directly, adding electric instrumentation, percussion, and decidedly more robust vocals.  (See, for example, Led Zeppelin's Bring It On Home (listen), which opens with a direct, musical homage to the original, offering song credits to Willie Dixon in the process, before shifting into a bombastic re-visioning of the song, Zeppelin-style.)

Despite all this, however, some crucial aspect of the blues - and, importantly, its southern, cultural origin - was lost in its conversion to a rock format.  Where The Black Crowes do fill a rather unique niche is in the way that they return the blues to its southern roots, and Descending is a great example of that in action.

The Black Crowes found fame fast forthcoming after the release of their first album, 1990's Shake Your Money Maker (listen).  Driven by hard rocking tracks like Twice as Hard (listen) and Hard to Handle (listen), and backed by the ballad She Talks to Angels (listen), the Crowes found popular rock radio success.  This trend continued through their second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (listen), though tracks like Sometimes Salvation (listen) hinted at what was to come.

By the time Amorica was released the Crowes had entered a transition period, heading into blues territory that was not readily transferable to mainstream, rock radio.  They slowly grew to eschew the harder, British version of blues rock that made a popular name for the genre and began to incorporate a decidedly more "southern" sentiment in their music.  Similar to the manner in which Lynyrd Skynyrd brought a southern sound to straight rock [nicely represented in the raunchy, "bayou" sound of tracks like Poison Whiskey (listen) and Swamp Music (listen)], The Black Crowes infused their blues with a soulful sound that I've taken to classifying as "southern rock gospel blues".  This sound would come to dominate their recordings and makes up the body of music in their next album, 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm (listen), perhaps best exemplified in the opening tracks, Under a Mountain (listen) and Good Friday (listen), the title of the latter not only referring to a Christian religious holiday but also including a backing of gospel singers on the final chorus.  Descending, however, was really their first strong foray into what would become this "southern gospel" sound

The piano introduction to the track is the first hint of something that is not your come-again blues song.  The chords are neither pop nor rock nor blues; they are, well, gospel-y.  This change from modern blues tone is immediately reinforced by the use of a lap slide guitar as the lead, a standard of old, southern blues, that can be seen at use in the live, stripped down, acoustic version of the song, below.  The big, bluesy, sustained slides that open the main chorus of the song seem to beg for a choir sing-a-long.


Of course, no blues song can ever really be a good blues song without the right singer.  When it comes to vocals and Chris Robinson, I am always reminded of a certain, beautiful and delightful road companion who once complained to me that his voice was too "breathy" (all the while I was trying to sell her on the values of The Black Crowes as a blues band).  Admittedly, "breathy" isn't exactly what I'd call a good trait for a blues singer.  Blues voices should be be somber and scratchy and the best, old blues singers tend to have what would be considered terrible singing voices to anyone with a classical background.  Given, however, the shift in genre focus that the Crowes tackle here, I can't think of a better quality for Robinson to have.  The wavering, soulful sound that he brings to the song matches perfectly the gospel-esque tone that commands the piano and guitar, breathiness and all.

I think what I find most appealing about Descending (and some other Crowes song from this middle period) is the seamless way in which they incorporate an ethereal, southern feeling into the modern, blues rock sound that made them popular.  Its the sort of artistic shift that keeps me interested in a band and is all the more intriguing, in this case, for the novelty of that "gospel blues rock" sound.  Between Amorica, Second Helping (listen), and Willy and the Poor Boys (listen), I feel like I've got just enough time to nurse this handle of Kentucky whiskey into harmonious oblivion.


Song Spotlight: Trinity Road (Michael Lee Firkins)

Song:  Trinity Road (listen)
Album:  Chapter Eleven (1995) (listen)
Artist:  Michael Lee Firkins

I'm a sucker for a lot of things: baroque writing, painfully arduous hikes, and really, really hot salsa, to name a few.  Although this song is none of those things, it is something else that I'm an absolute sucker for:  melodic guitar music.  I tend to like music that was once cool (like 70's guitar rock), music that has never been cool (like progressive, conceptual rock), and most certainly music that would get any red-blooded male laughed at in a biker bar (like the sort of guitar balladry that Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have become semi-famous for).

Michael Lee Firkins falls into step with this latter group of musicians for writing complex, guitar-based, instrumental music.  The origins of this "genre" are oftentimes attributed to Joe Satriani, who first made a splash in the rock scene with 1986's Not of this Earth (listen), a rock album that was completely devoid of vocals.  Where, previously, instrumental, rock guitar music had focused on the player's "chops," choosing to highlight the guitarist's soloing ability and general technical prowess, Satriani chose to write songs that were actually songs, sharing more in common, thematically, with the classical, Spanish guitar songs of old than with the modern showiness of his contemporaries.

Since, the door has been opened for many guitarists who write true, instrumental "songs," and Michael Lee Firkins is one of the better practitioners of the style.  For nearly a year now I've been unable to dislodge his stellar track, Trinity Road, from my head.  It is, in every sense, a ballad, but being free of lyrics, the listener is thankfully spared the often uninspired (and sometimes abjectly silly) love overtures that were the bread and butter of the 80's power ballad scene.  The listener must, instead, rely wholly on his intuition to decipher the musical movements that make up the emotional content of an instrumental song, and in this area Trinity Road leaves him plenty to work with.

From the opening note series (which is repeated throughout the track) to the chord chorus that makes up the heart of the song, Trinity Road hits a tone that moves through phases both somber and uplifting, yet never feels disjointed or forced, a feat that very few groups pull off with any success.  The guitar tone used by Firkins only adds to the song's strength, offering the listener a slightly scratchy sound that presses its bluesy, somber roots, but with the addition of a subdued echo effect that enhances the soft, emotional qualities that ultimately dominate the song.

Beyond crafting emotional tone purely through music, any guitarist intent on creating instrumental songs must also confront the fact that songs just sound better with vocals.  A good singer is more than just a good instrument; a good singer is a superior instrument.  My favorite singers have often outshone the other members of their bands due to the inherent advantage their vocal instrument carries, such as the ability to change tone, timbre, tuning, and pitch on the fly.  Not to mention that great singing voices are naturally appealing for their humanness.  Nonetheless, the instrumental guitarist must do his best to match the qualities of the soloing vocalist. Thankfully, of all instruments, the strings are perhaps best suited for this job, mimicking human vocal qualities and variations more strongly than other instrument types are capable of, a trait that Firkins adeptly puts to use through the use of an extended, overlaid guitar solo that shows up nearly from the very start of the track.  Like any great vocal, however, this is not simply a free for all; though both long and complex, the "vocal" solo does repeat, just like any singer would repeat his own lines, drawing the listener in with familiarity and appeasing his sense of musical satisfaction by providing a return to something recognizable.

Never once while listening to Trinity Road do I feel like its missing something, despite the lack of vocals; its as much a full "song" as anything with them.  For the guitar aficionados in the audience (who appreciate the guitar for its ability to be both blistering and benign), Michael Lee Firkins is yet another reason to pull down the headphones, turn off the radio, and evade the popular music scene for another blessed evening.


Some good songs to restart the blog: