Pokey LaFarge: Something in the Water

The music sounds old, as if it was meant to be played on a 78 rpm turntable, but without the scratchiness.
Pokey LaFarge
Something in the Water

Pokey LaFarge created a ripple in the Americana community with his insightful comments in an interview with Rolling Stone. He said:

The world that changes so quickly, I don’t think we have an identity in America anymore. I don’t know if we ever will again. Things move so fast and change so quickly. Some things you look at and say, “That’s Forties or Fifties,” but what can you say is 2015? You can’t. In two weeks, there will be something completely new. Two years from now we might not even use cell phones.

He’s right of course. While one can even cite the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s in terms of shared pop culture references, it gets a lot harder to do so by the time one gets to the 21st century because of the fragmentation of audiences and styles. Imagining a nostalgia act from the future playing tunes in a style from our present seems paradoxical. Almost all contemporary artists, from Mumford & Sons to Katy Perry to Rhianna to Sam Smith to Kendrick Lamar to Taylor Swift, have strong roots in the music of the past and little that makes them seem part of the particular here and now.

LaFarge plays music from earlier times on Something in the Water by artists like Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy, but mostly he writes his own songs in styles from bygone eras. He offers a large variety of styles and manages to keep the tone unified by production techniques that purposely sound old in a manner that resembles using Photoshop tools that make new photographs appear to be antique sepia prints. The music sounds old, as if it was meant to be played on a 78 rpm turntable, but without the scratchiness.

The good news is that LaFarge isn’t offering a retro-shtick, he’s creating something enchanting that recalls an era when most of his listeners were not even born. Consider the wailing trumpet and booming tuba that set off “Wanna Be Your Man” and make the love song seem silly and dated, but also timeless like love itself. The words may be simple, but that’s part of the charm. “Let me rock you with a steady roll”, LaFarge croons to a melody that predates the rock ‘n’ roll era, which makes the phrase more sexual and more innocent at the same time.

LaFarge isn’t afraid to swing, especially on the bouncy Western “Bad Girl” and the rowdy “Knockin’ the Dust of the Rust Belt Tonight”. These tracks reveal his music’s origins in a time when listened in groups at dance halls and clubs rather than the more common methods of hearing tunes today one MP3 players and computers. Indeed, LaFarge is well-noted for his live shows and his ability to get a crowd on its feet and move.

The quieter songs, such as “Far Away”, reflect a time when the pace of life was slower, but not necessarily better. LaFarge invokes yesterday as more unsophisticated than today, but he understands that human relationships have always been messy. The music on Something in the Water shows the connections between past and present are stronger than the elements that separate us from what was before.

RATING 7 / 10