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Waxed - Record Review from Issue #26 March-April 2000

Trading in the tools of the trad

Bad Livers

Blood & Mood (Sugar Hill)

With release of their sixth album in ten years, the Bad Livers expect — perhaps even demand — a storm of criticism, for it is quite unlike any other record Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin have made in this guise.

During that decade, they seemed eloquent, sometimes strident advocates of acoustic music, and explored their instruments in a variety of settings outside their primary band: the old time songs of the Newton Boys soundtrack; the klezmer ensemble, Rubinchik’s Orkestyr; Barnes’ live collaborations with jazz guitarist Bill Frissell; and in their recently released 1993 collaboration with fiddler Erik Hokkanen. But mostly, for better and worse, they’ve been called a bluegrass band.

Blood & Mood has almost nothing to do with bluegrass.

Danny’s got a brand new bag, and it involves a drum machine and a sampler and his joyful embrace of the sounds made available by that technology. Hence the expected storm.

For its part, the insular world of bluegrass has had little to do with the Bad Livers, and will be happy to see them go. Too many rules violations: short pants, tuba on stage, electric bass, tattoos, whatever. Hell, bluegrass traditionalists are so rabid that death threats followed the addition of drums to Alison Krauss’ band, and that was only five years ago.

No, even though they left the punk rock label Touch & Go and signed to Sugar Hill three discs back, bluegrass festivals hardly greeted the Bad Livers with open arms.

You can’t eat press clippings, that’s true enough, too.

And it is inescapably the ethos of punk to piss off the straight world, there’s always that. They were, after all, stained “the punk bluegrass band” early on, whether they wished to be or not.

But here’s the crux of it: Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin are two of the smartest and most adept musicians at work today, and they have more than earned the right to do whatever the hell they want.

Probably I should stop there, but I can’t.

The Bad Livers — the band who were playing when I leaned over to Peter and whispered, “let’s start that magazine we were talking about” — have left me behind, and I am both saddened and deeply troubled by what that implies.

(Well, they never did like people to talk during their shows.)

Barnes and Rubin are certainly not alone in this migration, for Joe Henry, Chuck Prophet, Beck, and a generation of others have found ways to incorporate traditional American music within the new textures of electronic sounds. But the Bad Livers have always insisted their music is art, have always said that they play what pleases them and hope it pleases an audience. This, then, is the direction their art leads them: Away from here.

Most of the music I have listened to and written about these past four years consciously traces, quotes, and acknowledges its roots in various forms of traditional American music: folk, blues, country, bluegrass, hybrids and fusions and experiments, all of it. Regardless, it is a song-driven music, and I seek from it the same reckless emotion that punk rock once offered, the same honesty I demand of all art.

Others, doubtless, find in this same music the comfort and certainty of an imagined past, as opposed to the peril of a future that seems overwhelming.

Thus there’s an enormous tension — no matter how much we fight not to define what “this music” might be — between its conservative past and its new home amid a certain subset of the aging hipoisie. Certainly, both audiences come to this page, for here we honor the old and the new, but once inside they naturally find different virtues and faults. One listener’s art is another’s disrespect.

Indeed, how can adherence to traditional musical sounds and structures be anything but a conservative impulse? Yet here in Nashville it seems very much a radical stance, and I still believe my politics to be those of a pragmatic radical.

No, Luddite though I may be, these are simply tools, these samplers and drum machines, and ’tis a poor workman who blames his tools. Yes, it is what one does with them that counts.

Barnes says, amid the press materials which accompany Blood & Mood, “I think you should get a BIG discount at any studio that isn’t sample, MIDI friendly. Like when I rent a car, I assume the bastard will have cruise control.”

Thing is, I don’t like cruise control.

Is it, then, that I neither like the sounds made by computers, nor have evolved a critical language with which to assess them? Well, I once loved Devo, the Eurythmics, and Gary Numan. Those bands had not yet abandoned the conventional form of the pop song, and used the coldness of their keyboards to emphasize the restrained fury of their vocals. The tension between voice and machine was the tension of an individual isolated in an increasingly industrial and impersonal society.

Maybe this is right, then: I do not understand what creative door these new technologies open, nor how they help us to say what we wish to say with greater precision and eloquence. They make tricks easy, and obfuscate; they create textures without meaning; they decorate. I do not understand the language that the virtuosos of electronic music are developing — from rap to electronica and beyond. And I cannot make sense of how Danny Barnes has integrated those same instruments into the musical vision he has so elegantly shared with Mark Rubin.

Even so, there are songs on Blood & Mood, hooks and phrases that will stay in my head. But mostly the songs are subservient to the texture; they become the basis of a collage; they become a more abstract art. Some of that I can work with, for certainly jazz has messed with the form of songs for at least 60 years now.

No, it is the sudden coldness that haunts me.

The Bad Livers made their acoustic instruments passionate extensions of their voices, and Danny Barnes was and is a prodigiously talented picker, and a glorious singer. His voice is all that still, but it’s somehow withdrawn, not engaged. It is cool, detached, matching the sounds of his machines. And though songs such as “I’m Losing” have all the squall of contemporary punk rock, none of it compares to the emotional honesty they have heretofore shared with their small but devoted audience.

“If there’s an agenda involved,” Rubin told Raoul Hernandez of the Austin Chronicle, in a piece that became the official bio for this album, “it was only to make a record the way people make records these days. Not the way a lot of hippie journalists think people make records right now, but the way kids are making records right now — the way the Eminem record got made. They’ll ask if we turned our backs on acoustic music. My answer is, ‘Well that brings up a lot of issues, like when were we ever a part of acoustic music?’”

What, then?

Barnes, in a statement that accompanied press mailings of the new record, offers this thesis: “We put together bands, listen to the radio, go dancing, and dress, according to Form.

“I submit for your perusal, this theory:

“1. Form is today’s standard for discussing music. For selling and making music, Form is the package things come in.

“2. Yet, Form has nothing to do with music. The best stuff transcends its Form anyway.”

Well, yes, but form follows function.

And, yes, my response to Blood & Mood has everything to do with its form, for by the choice of samples and drum loops and the new sterility of their sound, the Bad Livers have chosen to alter the dialogue they have enjoyed with their audience for this last decade.

This is the form Danny Barnes’ art now takes. Mood & Blood flows logically from the path taken by his fourth solo outing in two years, Danny Barnes And His…Oft Mended Raiment. But at the moment, it is Blood & Mood that engages me. And in the end I am honestly able only to respond to art according to its ability to touch my soul, and this album does not.

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Originally Featured in Issue #26 March-April 2000

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