Taking its lead from the ‘Americana Music Association’, Wikipedia describes ‘Americana’ as “contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.”
Like its well-received predecessor, the music on this second volume of Americana, showcases a slightly different take on this phenomenon. ‘Contemporary’? Well, most of these recordings, sourced from the golden musical decades of the ’70s and ’80s, nonetheless fit very snugly with an interest in all things folk-funk that, while a marked tendency amongst the kind of people who are usually more interested in black music styles since at least the ’90s rediscovery of Terry Callier, is very much of the ‘now’ as we get deeper into the twenty-first century. ‘Roots’ music? Well, most of this stuff has a commercial, professional sheen, redolent less of the back porch and wide open plains than the urban pub and the college campus. The musical syncretism found here represents an ‘easy’ strain of American popular music that was less ‘lock-up-your-daughters’ than ‘wow, I think Mom and Pop will like this too.’
As such, it represents a progressive, adult rapprochement with the civil rights movement, a moment in American cultural life before Reaganomics had fully achieved the backwards march that was a catalyst for the rise of hip-hop and the racial and class-based fracturing of the progressive post-war consensus. Life feels good, if a touch complacent, in these grooves.
It’s often the reception and not the production that crystallizes a musical style, and the relatively disparate sounds to be found on this album find their home together thanks to the particular aesthetic of renowned crate-digger/archivists Zaf Chowdhry and Mark Taylor. Both steeped in black music, these guys found they shared a penchant for its ‘blue-eyed’ variant. Blue-eyed soul has of course always been a part of Britain’s black music scenes, and the discourse has hopefully moved on from the days when earnest record collectors would debate whether only blacks could sing the blues. The quest for ‘authenticity’ that characterized those discussions really comes unstuck with these kinds of recordings: it’s precisely their inauthenticity as R&B that makes them authentic. The kind of melismatic, churchy, enraptured vocals characteristic of classic R&B are absent here, in their stead is something cooler and more definitively secular. If they speak to us now, it’s because we’re nostalgic for the kind of fit between music and identity that has become so lost with the advent of new recording technologies and brutal commercial realities. Bland, but expressive of new identities, new communities and the searching, reflective self that characterized the singer-songwriter role in the second-half of the twentieth-century, this album deepens our understanding of the influence of black music on American culture, and indeed of American culture more generally on the UK’s black music scenes, whilst spreading the love a little wider than the small circles of cognoscenti who have previously cherished these records.
This survey of a sound touches bases of all of those aforementioned UK and world-wide black-music scenes too. If the two-step scene has yet to pick up on the likes of Jaye P. Morgan, it’s been sleeping. Elsewhere, lightly jazzy instrumental funk (Luc Cousineau) jostles the deeper, heavier sounds of Lucy Stone. Artists such as Madcliff could work comfortably on the stompiest of Northern dancefloors, southern soul stalwarts Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes go disco, TR’s Hot Ice fit with the punk-funk/disco-not-disco template, and Hal Bradbury and Steve Eaton can pass muster with the more discerning of collectors as ‘proper’ soul records. All in all, it’s another in-depth look at a neglected area of American musical history with a direct line to the eclectic sensibilities of twenty-first century black music collectors.