The art of the musical renaissance
Even though there are approximately 13,459 new albums lying around the OTR box-room at any one time on CD or download, there are some which are played a whole lot more than others. This weather, it’s the latest albums from …
Even though there are approximately 13,459 new albums lying around the OTR box-room at any one time on CD or download, there are some which are played a whole lot more than others. This weather, it’s the latest albums from Bobby Womack and Dr John which are getting a lot of repeat plays. Both share a few characteristics – old-stagers coming back with younger guns at the studio desk – and both are probably albums I never expected to be digging as much as this six months ago.
Both are also prime examples of how the art of the musical renaissance can work. The template for this was probably sketched most famously by the late, great, mighty Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin when they first hooked up. On paper, it was a weird-ass pairing. You’d Rubin, the Def Jam and American producer who’d forged a way between the Beastie Boys and Slayer. And you’d Cash, the one-time country music kingpin whose career had hit a wall in the early Nineties by the time Rubin came along. I remember seeing Cash playing a 6pm matinee show in Dublin’s Olympia round about that time and, while it was fantastic to see Cash in action, it was nothing like the Cash that used to play in my mind. But a few short years after that, Cash had regained his iconic status thanks to what Rubin brought to the party and how the singer responded to those new ideas.
It should come as no surprise that XL’s Richard Russell is involved with new Womack album. Yes, we mention Russell a lot on OTR because we admire what he’s doing and because there are still thankfully a handful of record label chiefs who take their direction from Ahmet Ertegün’s handbook rather than Wall Street. Aside from overseeing Adele’s rise and rise, Russell is also proving to be a dab hand at the renaissance game. In 2010, he was the producer who persuaded Gil Scott-Heron back into action and, in the process, gave us the amazing “I’m New Here” album.
In the case of “The Bravest Man In the Universe”, the first album of original material from Bobby Womack in 18 years, Russell and co-conspirator Damon Albarn have concentrated on Womack’s incredible voice and pushed things on from there. It’s an album by a survivor about surviving and you can hear the cracks and contours of an extraordinary life in these fantastic songs. Womack couldn’t have written this album without having lived that life – but he also couldn’t have done so without the aid of two mavericks who saw and heard something in him that no-one else did.
It’s not as if Dr John hasn’t made some stonking records over the years since “Gris Gris” introduced him to the world, but “Locked Down” is in another class entirely. I wrote about this album a few months back after seeing him and the “Locked Down” band in action in New York. Again, it’s the presence of a producer from another space which makes the difference. Here, it’s Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, who herd a connection between the night-tripper’s NOLA voodoo and the Ethio-jazz plotted by Mulatu Astatke. The result is an album which still produces mojo on every listen and is, as of now, the best thing I’ve heard all year.
Of course, the art of the musical renaissance doesn’t always work. In the wake of Cash and Rubin, we saw many labels looking at the aul’ lads on their roster and trying to put them with younger, sharper, cooler producers and collaborators. The problem was always the material. As we know, acts tend to write their best stuff at the very start of their career and the musical quality tends to taper off once the act becomes established. It’s rare to get senior heritage acts coming up with the best albums of their lives at that stage of their career. It happens, but it’s rarer than you think and hence why so many match-ups haven’t worked.
At the same time, there are probably a few acts out there who could benefit from this sort of thing. I’d love to hear a Sade album produced by Questlove, for example. Neither are in need of the cash but think of how smart and sussed such an album would be. Just as Jay-Z and Kanye West have found a whole new lease of life thanks to “Watch the Throne”, watch as other hip-hop acts try something similar in the coming years. There’s a host of Irish acts, from Andy Irvine and Paul Brady to Shane MacGowan and Moya Brennan, who could also possibly produce interesting sparks in tandem with a new way of thinking. Our favourite meme of disruption doesn’t always have to be about technology, you know; it can also just be about approaching the same game in a different way.
(Listen to “The Bravest Man in the Universe” here and “Locked Down” here. Bobby Womack plays at Marlay Park, Dublin on August 25 with Van Morrison and Tom Jones, while Dr John & The Lower 911 plays Vicar St., Dublin on July 24)