Pokey LaFarge is a force of nature. Not only has he set out to popularise his unique take on the traditional American music he so obviously loves, but he has done it with verve, energy and commitment. This would be commendable even if his music, almost entirely self-written, was any less good than it is, but, notwithstanding his efforts, the music on Something in the Water is that good.
Something in the Water is Pokey and his band’s debut on Rounder, after six previous albums on a variety of independent labels. Here, Pokey teams up with producer Jimmy Sutton, and together with a strong group of players and contributors, conjures up a set of songs which reflect, reinforce and inform the Midwesernt sound which fans of LarFarge have become so enraptured with. LaFarge’s mission may be a personal one, but it always brings people in and along for the ride, taking in stopping off points at jazz, country, blues, ragtime, and beyond.
LaFarge himself has stated: “The people playing on these songs are from Wisconsin and Illinois and Chicago and St. Louis, and there’s a certain attitude that comes across in the songs and the way that they’re performed. I’m born and raised in the Midwest, and my family’s been here for generations. This is where I’m from and how I think, and that’s reflected in the music I make.”
His (and his band’s) exuberance extends to the stage, and that tight, razor-sharp live feel comes across on record, showing that, as befits his musical choices, there is no different in attitude and delivery between the studio and the road. Opening with the title track, Something in the Water immediately throws you into the LaFarge sound, with harmony vocals adding to Pokey’s own voice, giving the song a slight spiritual feel -– a different dimension to the image of ‘music that America forgot’, but music which never sounds ‘retro’, only fresh and essential.
“Wanna Be Your Man” is drawling, rolling, with a piano line which contributes to a picture of fun, free times, while “Underground” creates a interesting juxtaposition between ‘old’ and ‘new’ which partly defines the album’s feel. Eastern, almost Egyptian elements are drawn from the classic jazz/big band repertoire, but reinvented for future generations. LaFarge is always questioning, always reaching for the different, the ineffable, creating a fascinating melange of sound.
The band pass the smooth, sweet candle song test with flying colours on “When Did You Leave Heaven”, and provide yet more evidence that their music actually transcends place and time. The album touches bases of country, blues and jazz, but centres around the Midwest region which is a social and musical crossroads in more ways than one (“Cairo, Illinois”).
“Actin’ a Fool” is funky, flowing and fun, whilst “Goodbye Barcelona” is more classic sounding, with a decided Spanish swing to it. “Far Away” returns the band to a more simple, acoustic sound – country blues is reincarnated in the form of a sweet, charming paean to love and loss. “The Spark”, however, signifies a new direction for the band and their writing –- rock & roll, almost doo-wop in inspiration, the song opens new avenues, yet remains completely in tune with the album’s overall tone and purpose, as do the barking, Hawaiian-esque guitars on “Bad Girl”.
Closer “Knockin’ the Dust Off the Rust Belt Tonight” manages to sum up not only the album and its sound, but also the ethos of the band, their process and the area they represent. Something in the Water is joyous, musically seamless, progressive and celebratory all in one.