One of the cool, unusual things about Louder Than Dirt is that everybody sings. I want to start today’s post with a discussion of what a great singer Adam, who sings “Half in Two,” is. Adam is half of the Lawsky brothers—all the great southern bands have brothers in them—and he’s the youngest member of Louder Than Dirt. He is what in baseball you would call a student of the game. He grew up listening to the popular bands of the grunge and post-grunge eras (he still loves the Red Hot Chili Peppers), and the cool, almost affectless tone can be heard in Adam’s singing. He doesn’t use a big vibrato and he doesn’t bend a lot of notes. He doesn’t sing with gush. But he sings with great sincerity (“Integrity”: one of LTD’s cardinal virtues); he is himself. He himself has a lot of feeling, a lot of soul, but he doesn’t use vocal gimmicks to portray his soulful feelings. One could say that he deploys the technical ability not to call attention to technique. How is this possible? Part of the answer is that he is a rock musician, an excellent one. That is, his approach is improvisational and intuitive. But perhaps more significantly, Adam’s experience naturally led to who he is and how he sings.
To start with, Adam is a classically trained pianist. He can rip on some Mozart and Scott Joplin. Now, before I met Adam, I would never willingly work in a band with a keyboard player who had taken a lot of piano lessons. They just can’t improvise, I thought, or rather, they want to learn a part and play a part. I freely admit that this was an invidious prejudice on my part, and I’m grateful to Adam for helping me overcome it. I started out as a keyboard player before switching to guitar, and I guess I wanted keyboard players to play like untutored me. But Adam can play blues piano as well as he can play Bach. And how is that possible? Well, this is what I mean when I say that he is a student of the game. Adam has a lot of musical book-learning, and don’t be so naïve, dear reader, as I was, to imagine that education and soul are mutually exclusive. So Adam educated himself about the blues just as he was educated about the classical tradition. And he’s also very much aware, much more aware than I, about contemporary trends. So the bottom line is that Adam is a highly sensitive artist with the technical ability to translate that imaginative gift into beautiful musical performance: another third of Louder Than Dirt’s credo: Creativity.
Like every musician who both sings and plays an instrument, Adam sings as he plays. Thus his vocal style is more Mississippi John Hurt—and Anthony Kiedis—than Howling Wolf. Brief digression: of the bands that arose in the grunge scare of the 90’s, RHCP is my personal favorite since their music has some blackness in it, thanks to Flea’s funk, a quality lacking in most rock bands since the 70’s. I try to write at least one slow blues song for each CD, and Adam is a natural to sing them. Brief digression: to create original blues is as challenging, or more challenging, than to create original anything else. Most of the time, when a more or less contemporary act “sings the blues,” they are either singing an old song or (much worse) putting new lyrics to an old song. Now I have no beef with recycling the past, but the material from the past must undergo some transformation. So, for example, one of the most successful original blues songs ever is “Folsom Prison Blues,” which nobody would ever confuse with “Crescent City Blues,” even though Johnny Cash admitted that he borrowed heavily from that song, even going so far as to pay a royalty settlement to its composer. So a technique that I occasionally use to differentiate an original blues from its predecessor is to write it in a minor key. There are great blues songs in a minor key (“The Thrill Is Gone” and “Who’s Been Talking” come to mind) but the vast majority of the blues is in a major key. So on both our current CD, Madness and Morals, and its predecessor, Oily Little Rainbows, I contributed a slow blues in a minor key. In both cases Adam volunteered to shoulder the vocal duties. A philistine canard about the blues is that “blues are sad.” Whew. Listen to Adam on “Signifying Blues” on OLR or “Half in Two” on M&M and you will hear a depth of emotion considerably more profound than mere sadness.
The phrase “Half in Two” comes from Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”: “I’ll take my 32-20 and cut her half in two.” Now, I’ve heard the phrases “cut in half” and “cut in two,” but I’ve never heard, before nor since, the conflation of the two phrases in “half in two.” It’s an intensity that transcends geometry. So I apply my “comprehensive” or “encyclopedic” method: how many images and phrase can I get out of “half in two.” And then there’s the converse or flip side: “tangled up in circles.” So, one is simultaneously divided outward and twisted inward. Well, that’s the whole song. Okay, here comes the full disclosure: in the middle of the song, we hear an allusion to the same myth, of Prometheus, that appears in “Bacteria”:
You make vultures eat my guts
So it turns out that the being who is doing the splitting and the tangling is not really “my baby,” but the same “thunder hurler” whose vultures are called to their feast—“my guts”—by the “saprophytic workers.”
Musically, I don’t suppose there is much to say except that Louder Than Dirt really knows how to play the blues. Joseph’s snare stroke is magnificent. Julian plays a simple part with beautiful, subtle, connoisseur-like variations. Modesty forbids, as usual, commentary on the guitar part, but the Stratocaster does get a good tone, and I do like playing those single notes around the vocal part. Adam too plays riffs on electric piano around the vocal part, and the guitar and the piano interplay nicely. Do I end each of these posts with the protestation that I have been commenting upon one of my favorite songs? Honestly, Dear Reader, there’s no filler on “Madness and Morals.” While it is true that finished is better than perfect, and while it is also true that without a deadline is madness, we have fulfilled the artist’s moral duty to make the record as good as we could make it. Louder Than Dirt: Integrity, Creativity, Loudness.