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The Graham Album Review #1815

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Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water
by George Graham

(Rounder Records, As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/27/2015)

With the rampant eclecticism of the contemporary music scene that goes on outside the commercial media, it’s not surprising that a lot of diverse influences are being not only incorporated but also being rediscovered by younger performers. And over the past several years there has been a small but active contingent of groups who look to the pre-rock era for their influences, people like the Squirrel Nut Zippers from a few years ago, and more recently on this album review series, the Hot Sardines and Le Percolateur. This week, we have another very good example, a gentleman who looks to early jazz, vaudeville, 1920s novelty songs and old country for influence, Pokey LaFarge, whose new CD, his seventh, is called Something in the Water.

Born Andrew Heissler, his mother called him Pokey as a child because of his slowness in responding to what she asked him to do. The LaFarge part came after he started performing, seeking to make a new identity for himself, after taking off on a cross-country hitch-hiking trip playing while still in his teens. He thought LaFarge would be a good name for the kind of music he was doing.

A native of Bloomington, Illinois, LaFarge had an interest in both music and history, encouraged by his grandfathers. One was bluegrass musician, and the other was a serious history buff. Through his interest in bluegrass, he began to discover the early blues and jazz artists. But after hearing Bill Monroe, LaFarge took up the mandolin and thus was added another facet to his music.

In his travels across the country, he met members of a band from St. Louis called the Rum Drum Ramblers. Members Ryan Koenig, Joey Glynn and Adam Hoskins would eventually join LaFarge to form his band, and LaFarge settled in St. Louis. He has been recording since 2006, and began working with his group on record in 2009.

Some of today’s pre-rock-influenced bands set out for authenticity, using instruments, sounds and stylistic elements specific from a past era. But the new album, LaFarge and company – which includes quite a few supplemental musicians – outwardly sound like music that came off an old 78-rpm record, but they mix up styles in an intriguing way, and throw in some electric rock-influenced guitar and organ, as they look to styles like 1920s jazz and Charleston-era music, early blues, including the novelty songs of the day, Western Swing, and even a little early doo-wop. They also have plenty of period instruments, including cornet, tuba and the arch-top guitar that was popular in the early jazz days. LaFarge himself has a little quaver in his voice that also evokes a past era. It’s all very appealing and fun. Lyrically, there are some tunes that are patterned after old novelty songs.

Leading off is those lighthearted tunes, the title track Something in the Water, a rather humorous love song that highlights LaFarge’s sounds that evokes the early 20th Century sounds. <<>>

Also showing influence from the 1920s is I Wanna Be Your Man with some ragtime-style piano and tuba holding down the bass. Andy Schumm is the featured cornet soloist. <<>>

One of the most interesting songs on the album is Underground. It’s in a minor key and sounds like some bands from the swing era when they were trying to conjure exotic sounds. The lyrics are apocalyptic and actually have a bit of scientific basis to them. It’s about the potential disaster of a huge earthquake on the New Madrid fault line in Missouri, which was the site of one of the biggest earthquakes ever to hit America in historic times, in 1811. The group does a great job. <<>>

A more conventional love song is When Did You Leave Heaven, which is taken at a slower pace and conjures the Mills Brothers and artists of that era. <<>>

LaFarge and company does an interesting mix of early country and some old-time novelty blues on a track called Actin’ a Fool. It’s another appealing, upbeat song. <<>>

One of the major figures in music from the era from which LaFarge draws is the Fats Waller. Waller’s influence is unmistakable in LaFarge’s song All Night Long. <<>>

An interesting mashup of influences comes on the song called Goodbye Barcelona which features some cranked-up electric guitar, a helping of vaguely Mexican influence and perhaps some old cowboy music. Though it might not be the very best tune on the album, it’s still quite entertaining. <<>>

The CD ends with one of its most upbeat, jazzy tunes, Knockin’ the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight, which has LaFarge and band in full hot-jazz style. <<>>

Something in the Water, the new seventh album by St. Louis-based Pokey LaFarge is a fun record full of music that sounds as if it came off an old 78 record. LaFarge has the perfect vocal style for it, and he and producer Jimmy Sutton assembled an excellent group for this Chicago-made recording that is full of Midwestern references. While the music they make definitely sounds as if it came from a prior era, they mix up the styles in ways that are quite original, with a few musical anachronisms thrown in for good measure

Our grade for sound quality is no better than a C-plus. I can understand making a recording that sounds as if it came from a previous era, but I don’t buy the idea of including the sonic flaws from the past. The recording has little stereo separation and is nearly mono, which is OK, but it’s also badly volume-compressed and LaFarge’s vocal frequently sounds overdriven and distorted. Nostalgia or not, there is no excuse for that.

There have been a succession of groups in recent decades to look to the pre-rock era for the influence including the Squirrel Nut Zippers and late Bob Brozman, who specialized in this kind of style from a blues perspective. LaFarge has been attracting audiences through his records, frequent touring, an appearance on Prairie Home Companion and his contribution of a song collaborating with Vince Giordano in the soundtrack to the cable TV series “Boardwalk Empire.” This new album, with wider distribution, should help LaFarge find even more fans for his clever, creative time-warp sounds.

(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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