Thursday, April 2, 2009

Gavin DeGraw - and others - Re-Establish the Root of American Pop Music

The root of American popular music can be summed up in one word -- soul. It's all about the nitty gritty detail of a story yet to be told that makes American pop music what it is.

This style can be traced back to the earliest and simplest form of American story telling through music. And no -- it's not the folk troubadors of days past that started the trend -- it's the men and women who bared all they had. The truest and purest American pop music is the blues.

Contemporary pop musicians, whether they fall into sub-genres including rock, alternative, power punk, etc., all have a touch of the blues in what they write, record, or perform. It's hard not to admit that a pure, acoustic performance (live or recorded) is something that provides a listener with that sense of understanding -- they make you feel like you get what they've gone through because ... well ... you've been through it too.

The blues exists as a a coping mechanism. It enables the musician's ability to gain a sense of confidence and get a good laugh from something that's got 'em down. It's a way to get out of the dumps and make a joke out of shitty situation.That's why the blues resonate with fans when singer-songwriters incorporate that style within their own. It gives a song that "personal touch" people want.

Arists are going back to their roots and catering to fan requests for some "real" music by stripping down their once multi-track, artificially produced sounds and making music without any technical help. It's just a voice and an instrument, no computer-strings attached.

Gavin Degraw, who has tooled with this concept in the past on his re-released version of his debut album Chariot, took the "stripping down" concept and applied it his work. March 30 marked the next step in his attempt to get back to the basics of making music by releasing his latest album Free.

"I just wanted to make a legitimate record, an artist's record for an artist's fans," DeGraw told "I didn't want to saturate the tracks with overdubs and flying guitars and unicorns and shit. I wanted to keep everything out of the way and allow the songs to really be about what the songs are fundamentally, which is music and lyrics."

The sound on Free is simple, rootsy, and less pre-packaged than that of his first two releases. It features earlier unrecorded songs written by DeGraw that have become live show fan favorites such as "Dancing Shoes" and "Glass". He even included a new version of "Young Love" from last years self-titled sophomore album.

DeGraw isn't the only ace on a roll with this simpler take on popular music. Singer-Songwriter Ray LaMontagne started a noticeable trend after appearing on NBC's Saturday Night Live in March to promote his latest single from his 2008 release Gossip in the Grain, "You Are The Best Thing".

LaMontagne is known for his velvet voice, reminiscent of what Rolling Stone Magazine describes as a young Van Morrison, as well as his storytelling-songwriting style. More importantly, he's not alone.

Another member of the acoustic-storytelling gang includes singer-songwriter M.Ward. You can call him old school if you like, but his style is as pure as music comes in a digital world. His recordings and instrumentation are all acoustic. He does not record digitally and probably never will. That's what makes his style distinctive and appealing to listeners.

The push back to roots is important in today's consumer driven music market that focuses on records sales as opposed to making music. Ward, LaMontagne, and Degraw made the right decision when it comes to musicianship and they're still selling records. Maybe they've got the secret that the rest of the industry hasn't discovered yet.

Here's to hoping this band of acoustic songwriters end the digital era and re-establish the American tradition -- unadulterated music full of soul.

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