By: Thomas D. Mooney
Often when you hear a musician, you hear subtleties (and sometimes straight up rip-offs) in a song that will remind you of another musician who had an influence on that band, song, album, and/or person. That shouldn’t be a surprise. We recently asked Grady Spencer for a short list of musicians who have had a impact on him, his writing, and music.
In addition, we asked to give us the ever so broad question, why? Why these bands? Why these songs? Why?
Spencer dives into these songs and tells us all what are his favorites, his first memories, what he thinks about when hearing particular songs, his recollections of live performances, and why these few have an impact on him. I could ramble on and on. but that would be pointless. I’ll just let Spencer do the talking from here on out.
Grady Spencer and The Griswulds play The Blue Light tonight (February 29) with opener The Continuums.
Grady Spencer: So I realize that I probably should have devoted more time and consideration for this list, but really and truly, off-the-cuff, these are five of my favorite artists. There are many like them, but these are mine. I literally believe if from this second on, for the rest of my life, I’d only have these 10 songs to listen to, I’d be just dandy. Kooky and random, maybe. But each and every one of these artists have one in thing in common: truth. I don’t ever have to sit around and deliberate on what kind of tricks these dudes are playing on me in their recordings, in their songs, in themselves. I sit and I write music and I can only hope that someday, somewhere, somebody will feel even remotely close to how I feel about these ten songs.
“Angel Band”- The Wood Brothers
This song is basically everything I love about The Wood Brothers in one, tightly packed 4 minutes-and-45-seconds. Starts off with minimalist, throaty upright bass strums. Triggers Oliver Woods’ raspy voice singing about heaven in a way that I’ve never really heard someone do before. At 1:50, the fellas fire up the gospel with simple, single strums on a guitar that’s tone has been obviously honed over years and years of practice. (Incidentally, I’ve been front row for the Wood Brothers at the Stubb’s basement, and one key ingredient to the sound is a wadded up pair of whitey-tightey briefs inside the f-hole of his guitar) At 3:10, the crown jewel of this song unfolds: probably my favorite guitar solo in all of music. Anyone that can play something so beautifully simple and sparse with nothing but a vintage upright bass behind them, and still fit perfectly into the vibe and soul of an old-timey gospel hymn, is obviously bound to be probably my favorite musician of all time.
“Spirit”- The Wood Brothers
No one, and I do mean no one (in my opinion), can create a deeper groove with only a guitar, upright bass, simple percussion, and vocals. The swampy, filthy, slimy, eery feeling of this tune makes “Spirit” a favorite on my iPod. The phrasing that Oliver Wood breaks up his lyrics into the Grand Canyon of groove (‘I know I’m lucky to be in the jungle doing what I please…’) makes me wanna shimmy and shower at the very same time. Amazing tune.
“Breaks”- The Black Keys
Any song that starts with a roughed-up, grainy sample of some infomercial laced with the funk and soul of a good old-fashioned break beat (**see title reference) is already destined for greatness. Cue a nasty, addictive guitar riff breaking into the scene and we’re rolling along nicely. Part of what makes the early Black Keys stuff so great is the simplicity that they piece together their blues. No song is a better example of this than “Breaks.” It’s basically the same riff over and over with one simple progression change for a chorus, then it’s back to the same riff. Over and over. Most any other time you hear the same riff over and over a hundred times in a song, it gets old really, really quickly. But after listening to this song in upwards to a hundred times at least, I can tell you from first-hand experience that this song will never, ever get old.
“Heavy Soul”- The Black Keys
It’s no accident that my other featured song from The Black Keys is off of the exact same album as “Breaks.” “The Big Come Up” is probably pound for pound, my favorite album in the world. I was introduced The Black Keys through their album “The Rubber Factory.” But when I stumbled across “The Big Come Up,” it transformed my interest in The Black Keys from casual admirer to all-out fanatic. The “Big Come Up” saved me from the depths of Top 40 radio and Toby Keith singles…gave me the taste of caviar after cardboard frozen pizza. “Heavy Soul” is a song that brings up the vibe of old school blues tunes of the greats, but mixes it with a grainy, vintage-sounding beat that makes me want to march around. Or something like that.
“Tall Green Grass”- Cory Branan
I first heard this song in college in my old 1996 Explorer when I used to drive around blasting KTXT (R.I.P) through the busted speakers. I think it was the only time I ever actually called into the station, even though I was a complete fanboy for pretty much everything they ever played. I asked in short breath what this great song was that they were playing. The too cool for school DJ cooly replied, “‘Tall Green Grass’ by Cory Branan.” Like what I would imagine the first hit of crack would feel like. First thing you notice about this song: Cory Branan can finger-pick the living hell out of a guitar. He changes chords so fast and colorfully that it seems like there’s two or even three other dudes playing with him, but yet, only him. I cover this song sometimes and I always pray no one in the place knows the actual song, simply because I’ve never been able to get even close to Cory’s guitar skills. Second thing about this song, I always assumed the percussive knocking in the background was always a sampled loop. But when I saw Cory at Bash’s 2 a couple of years back, he divulged that the knocks were actually someone playing along with him in the studio, just drenched in reverb. Which is even more impressive. Lastly, the guy says “We’ll wash off that makeup with a garden hose…” in the song. Need I say more…?
“Crush”- Cory Branan
I mean, lyrically, the man is a genius. The more and more I watch him play stuff live on YouTube and the few times I’ve seen him live (Best Show: The HiTone in Memphis, Tennessee….sat next to Ben Nichols and watched him drink Jameson out of an iced tea glass), I think he’s a little bit of a crazy genius. But a genius nonethess. Probably favorite line in a song, “That time I mentioned I was moving, and you said you’d help me move. I almost went out and bought some shit so I’d need your help to move.” Just doesn’t get much better than that. I also kinda love the crazy bar scenario break right in the middle of the song. Somebody barking and a bottle breaking…that’s where I want to be at.
“History of My Life”- Blake Mills
This could be sacrilegious to say as a pseudo-hipster/music fan. But I’ve never been grabbed by the hair by the band Dawes. Just never really did it for me. But Blake Mills, former guitarist for Simon Dawes, released the album “Break Mirrors” in 2010, and after hearing a session of his on Daytrotter, I searched out his debut on iTunes. And after near-obsessively listening to the full album numerous times on drives and whatnot, I’ve got to say that it’s one of the most beautifully produced modern records I’ve heard in a long time. (Also James Vincent McMorrow’s “Early in the Morning” is a great one…neither here nor there) But the crem de la crem of Mills’ album by far in my opinion is “History of My Life.” Just the tone of the acoustic guitars mixed with what sounds like a baritone guitar mixed with tasteful reverb mixed with drums run through a grain filter mixed with a warm blanket of “ooooooos” and “aaaaaaaaas” mixed with great lyrics about pelicans and life’s choices is enough to make me want to be a better man.
“Hey Lover”- Blake Mills
If someone audibly clears their throat or coughs or sighs in the first five seconds of a recording of a song, I automatically want to be their friend. But if they then proceed to play a very small-sounding guitar, like a parlor or resonator, then I’m just plain hooked. Hence, this song is on the list. But this is also an example of extraordinary producing. The lineup of instruments and parts in this song just grow and grow to the point that it almost feels like it’s going to fly off the rails and/or give me a migraine in my headphones. But then Mills pulls back the reigns just enough to drive home the nails of a song about a man that I gather doesn’t like that he’s grown a beard, a beer belly, and a likeness to the people of his own race. I wish I could write a song like that.
“Left on Laura, Left on Lisa”- The Avett Brothers
I feel like some of my historically favorite bands, such as the Avett Brothers (and Bon Iver, The Black Keys, etc.), have in the past couple of years have, quite frankly, blown up. And as every person who’s ever felt like they’ve been ahead of the game in what they’re jamming in their earbuds, I’m not ridiculously stoked about it. But that’s just that way that truly great music works…sooner or later, if it’s a great as you know it is, a whole crap-load of folks are going to know about it. And that’s that. But the Avetts are two people who I don’t think I’d care if a 90-year-old rice farmer in China knew about. Simply because I think they’re great writers, they’re great people, and every single song they put out is pretty much great. I think they’ve ridden the waves of phases that all musicians have ridden to try to stay fresh and new to their fans, but deep down, I think they’re still just good people making good music. “Left on Laura, Left on Lisa” is a great example of a simple song written in a simple chord progression with a relatively simple lyric content. But what makes this song one of my favorites of the Avetts is the way Seth’s voice cracks as he screams from the depths of his soul; the way Scott hammers the banjo until you’re absolutely positive there’s no way those five thin little banjo strings are going to survive; and the way you can tell that these two men love this song. I always have believed (and always will) every single thing The Avett Brothers have ever said in a song. No questions asked.
“And it Spread”- The Avett Brothers
So there very well might be some Avett purists who might veto this one, but I don’t think you can deny the goodness of this. Sure, there’s a much different feel to this whole album (“I and Love and You”) compared to their previous work (Thanks, Rick Rubin. Yeah. That Rick Rubin). But this song gives a nice little laid back groove that you normally don’t get to see in the Avetts’ work. The off beats are what really bring it on home for me. That, and the fact that the dudes aren’t using one electric instrument in the song (bass maybe?) and they rock out so freaking hard. I attribute this to some great pipes, great writing, and one helluva set of beards. If you’ve never experienced the depths of the Avetts, I’d recommend YouTubing “Crackerfarm.” Believe me, you’ll thank me later.