Singer-songwriter Caroline Rose and the band Algiers, Jeff Buckley, PJ Harvey, and Music Culture

By Daniel Garrett

Caroline Rose, I Will Not Be Afraid
Little Hill Records/ Thirty Tigers, 2014
Algiers, Algiers
Matador Records, 2015

I was listening to a public radio station when someone speaking introduced a song I had not heard before—it was City and Colour’s “Lover Come Back,” written and performed by the Canadian musician Dallas Green.  It is a wonderfully soulful song, and I have been listening to that song every chance I get.  It is from Green’s City and Colour album If I Should Go Before You (2015).  While going through different music videos—not only City and Colour but Diana Ross singing “Amazing Grace” in Budapest, Florence Welch performing at Royal Albert Hall, and Beyoncé at the Super Bowl—I stumbled into music by the English group Daughter, featuring Elena Tonra, and was moved by what I heard, such sincere music.  More than one glittering titan of popular music stalks the concert stages of America and the international scene, but there are other performers whose look and sound are more free and yet more humble, more imaginative and yet more simple, and more necessary although less rewarded—and yet these independent spirits do not get as much publicity.  It says something about the faultiness of human attention that when I first heard the music of Caroline Rose, I thought that she was rare, strange, and significant, but that I told no one about her and my strong impression though that was the exact opposite of my intention.  Caroline Rose’s work has anguish and anger, drive, intelligence—passion.  It is the kind of passion that can save an artist but damn a woman.  Caroline Rose has an antipathy for authority (“I don’t like most bosses and most bosses don’t like me,” she has been quoted as saying to the High Road Touring company); and Rose’s 2014 album I Will Not Be Afraid is a collection of eleven spirited songs, honest and rebellious, with varied rhythms.  “I really came to pursue music though a series of happy accidents.  I started playing the piano when I was really young, but the lessons didn’t last long because the teacher gave me homework!  I picked up the guitar when I was about thirteen years old and taught myself.  I’m not really good at theory or reading music, I just play by ear,” said Rose to the online publication The Daily Country (May 11, 2014).  Caroline Rose, the daughter of visual artists, has been an architecture student at a liberal arts college, an organic farmer worker, and a grocery store clerk, and she has listened to all kinds of music (and cited Ryan Adams as an influence); and Rose has toured a range of venues in America, and told The Daily Country that her first recording, 2013’s America Religious was a collaborative, experimental work: “America Religious was a labor of love.  My musical partner, Jer Coons, and I co-produced the album and recorded it ourselves in a studio in Vermont.  All of the songs and arrangements are my own.  We played almost all of the instruments.  Really, whoever was in the studio first and could get to an instrument was really how we decided who played what.  For example, I didn’t know how to play cello, so I rented one and played the part over and over again until I mastered the sound I wanted.  I did the same thing with the lap steel parts.”  Its successor I Will Not Be Afraid seems very alive—intelligent and refreshing, alive to experience, public and private, obvious and repressed.

Liberty, responsibility, and transgression seem the subject of the song Caroline Rose’s song “Blood on Your Bootheels,” so it is not all that surprising to learn that it was inspired by the killing of African-American teen Trayvon Martin, one more experience that seems awesome—a terrifying wonder, an experience that would be incredible—defying belief, lacking credibility—in a logical, sane world.  It is a song that embodies much of the spirit of the album— a chanting list of observations and comments; a creative, passionate response to a particular situation.  Can even a brave attitude outrun shocking acts and consequences and what they mean?  “Tightrope Walker” is jangling country-influenced rock music, rambling, strong, observant, and intense.  The perspective is weary, knowing, and the advice simple and nonchalant in “When You Go.”

There is howling hunger in the nightmarish “Let Me In.”  Is it an anthem of youth, or a cry from the grave?  Consider these lines: “When that moon is bright, / yes, we’ll shout, / ‘We are young! / We’re free, / and we don’t need anyone!’ / Break me out / We’ll crawl out of our graves tonight, / but we will not make a sound. / When the heavens open up, / we’ll give them a taste a-dirt, / our backs a-blisterin’. / A-crawlin’, crawlin’ / ‘til our jeans wear thin. / We’ll scale the trees, / cryin’ out / when that moon is bright.”  The song “At Midnight” is exquisitely imaginative, offering a taut, clipped recitative about vivisection and transformation—a profound conformity: “I like my machine…I got a new face…”

The album offers another interpretation of the song “America Religious”—some of its lines are surreal and some are quite blatant in its political critique: “For lack of something better to do America religious, / I eat slices of white privilege processed by agri-business”; and then there is “Red Bikini Waltz,” which features lyrics that describe ostentatious luxury—mindless, useless indulgences.  “Time Spent, Money Grow” seems reminiscent of Bob Dylan in its rambling delivery and for its harmonica.  “Can’t make wrongs right, though I’m bound to try,” Caroline Rose sings in the quiet downbeat “Shepherd,” which seems so obviously poignant it could cause heartbreak: a hurtful past, and a failed attempt to forget is easily resonant—something anyone could see herself, himself, in.  After “Back East” is the closing song “Will Not Be Afraid,” a declaration of courage and conviction that has the aura of a reckless prayer.

Caroline Rose is one of the performers who is keeping the singer-songwriter tradition alive, one of the performers who is keeping the independence music scene a resource for liberation: so are Alabama Shakes, Arctic Monkeys, Bright Eyes, Broken Bells, Camera Obscura, The Dears, Father John Misty, Foster the People, Rhiannon Giddens, Valerie June, Frank Ocean, Josh Ritter, Savages, St. Vincent, and Vampire Weekend.  It reminds me of an earlier time, when musicians such as Afghan Whigs, Tori Amos, Marc Anthony, Don Byron, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Cure, Dead Can Dance, Digable Planets, Fugazi, Miki Howard, Kitchens of Distinction, Annie Lennox, Nirvana, Pavement, Skunk Anansie, Shudder to Think, Sonic Youth, Suede, Matthew Sweet, Talk Talk, The The, A Tribe Called Quest, and Cassandra Wilson, had a greater claim on our attention.  I recall the excitement of performers such as Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey.  Buckley’s sensitivity and sensuality and Harvey’s raw candor and passion defied expectations of cool, of decorum, of gender—even of professionalism.  Buckley’s albums Grace and Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk and Mystery White Boy present a young man, the son of a classical musician mother and a known folk-rock singer-songwriter father, who was influenced by many artists—including Leonard Cohen and Nina Simone—but who was on his way to becoming something utterly strange and new.  (I saw him in concert at the Supper Club—and walking in the East Village, singing a Nirvana song to himself.)  PJ Harvey was shocking too: who can forget her line “lick my legs, I’m on fire” from Rid of Me (1993)?  Polly Jean’s album To Bring You My Love (1995) is unforgettable—bluesy and rocking and yet quite original—mysterious, haunting.  Her other recordings, such as Dry (1992), Is This Desire (1998), Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), and Let England Shake (2010) offer different degrees of amazement.

Who knows how the current era of culture will be defined?  Yet now, one must be grateful for the artists and intellectuals and scientists who are working to contribute something imaginative, intelligent, and useful: in films such as About Elly, Age of Adaline, Aloha, Bessie, The Big Short, Black or White, Brooklyn, Captive, Chi-raq, Dear White People, The Diary of a Teenage Age, Everest, Far from the Madding Crowd, 5 to 7, Gueros, Grandma, Infinitely Polar Bear, Intern, Invisible Woman, Irrational Man, Jackie & Ryan, Jimmy’s Hall, Life of a King, Lila & Eve, 1,000 Times Goodnight, Ricki and the Flash, Secret in Their Eyes, Self/less, Selma, Southpaw, Sympathy for Delicious, Suffragette, Tangerines, Testament of Youth, Treme, True Detective, Wadjda, A Walk in the Woods, and What Maisie Knew; and music by Dayme Arocena (Nueva Era), Andrew Bird (Are You Serious), Black Violin (Stereotypes), Terence Blanchard (Magnetic), Kris Bowers (Heroes & Misfits), Mary Ellen Childs (Wreck), Daughter (Not to Disappear), Fred Hersch (Solo), Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden (Last Dance), Ray LaMontagne (Ouroboros), Anthony de Mare (Liaisons: Reimaging Sondheim), Colin Vallon (La Vent), Verve Jazz Ensemble (East End Sojourn), Yeasayer (Amen & Goodbye); and in books of fact and fiction, such as Abstract Aesthetics by Phillip Harper, Black Hollywood Unchained edited by Ishmael Reed, Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity by Mario Gooden, Film Worlds by Daniel Yacavone, George Washington Carver by Christina Veilla, Half an Inch of Water by Percival Everett, L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema edited by Field, Horak, and Stewart, The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips, The New York Nobody Knows by William B. Helmreich, Prudence by David Treuer, The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-Wai by Gary Bettinson, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer by Michelle Ann Stephens, There is Simply Too Much to Think About by Saul Bellow, Who Can Afford to Improvise – James Baldwin and Black Music by Ed Pavlic, and Women’s Cinema, World Cinema by Patricia White.

Another musical group that is trying to maintain a sense of passion and purpose is Algiers.  Algiers blends different musical traditions, though I principally hear rock and soul music.  The band, with roots in the American South (Atlanta), consists of singer Franklin James Fisher, guitarist Lee Tesche, and bassist Ryan Mahan; and their passion is political and all over their self-titled summer 2015 album, which had been recorded in the spring and summer of the preceding year (and the release of the 2015 album was followed quickly by an extended play set called the Mute Studio Sessions, a reinterpretation of some of the songs, recorded by literature student Fisher and Tesche and Mahan with singer and drummer Matt Tong of Bloc Party in August 2015).  Having listened to the original 2015 album before its official release, the online music site Stereogum’s Caitlin White said, “The text of their debut, self-titled album is a scathing intellectual clash of religion, race, economics and morality.  To grapple with the eleven songs on Algiers is to wrestle angels, face down demons and rebel against authority—this is revolutionary music in the truest sense of the word.  It demands action” (March 26, 2015).  In the band’s public representations, its members reference Laurie Anderson, James Baldwin, the Black Panthers, Dada, Depeche Mode, Devo, Miles Davis, Fela, Irish activism, and socialism.  The men have performed in England, France, Portugal, and Spain as well as California and New York, Georgia and North Carolina.  Those are fairly intense and provocative sign posts for southern boys, but Mahan told Stereogum of the Georgia and the American South: “It’s a very repressed, conservative society that has a very underlying sense of dread and violence.  How we connected initially as individuals and on an aesthetic level, was in reaction to that type of experience and that type of life-world.”  The friends and collaborators have left the region: Fisher lives in New York, and Mahan and Tesche in London.

“Their music is likewise a pastiche of transgressive rock signifiers: the soul-powered activism of early ‘70s Motown, the proto-punk fury of the MC5, the synth primitivism of Suicide, the biblically charged drama of the Bad Seeds,” said Pitchfork’s Stuart Berman, noting the band’s biracial character and topicality (June 1, 2015).  (Berman counted eleven songs—whereas I count ten.)  Algiers’s eponymous album’s ten songs are dense and intense, beginning with the murmuring, simmering “Remains,” a song about cruelty and power, from ancient times to now, sometime abstract, sometimes specific: “We’re your careless mistake. / We’re the spirits you raised. / We are what remains,” sings Franklin James Fisher.  Pitchfork said the song, “a chain-gang stomp provides a none-too-subtle evocation of America’s slave-trading past, while Fisher’s anti-television invective highlights the modern form of captivity that’s replaced it.”  A blend of rock and soul is “Claudette.”  The composition “And When You Fall” seems to be about a planned insurgency while power plays: colonization—not only conquer but disguise, lies, and transformation of values—is subject, and also motive for action, cause for rebellion—and the question is whether this is the beginning of genuine activism or merely paranoid fantasy (the only proof may be the ultimate results).  “Blood,” a history lesson, sounds like a current version of an old work song, the kind of songs enslaved men and chain-gang prisoners sang: chanting, humming, clapping, with the refrain, “All my blood’s in vain.”  (“Blood” sounds like a traditional work song crossed with the industrial rock of Throbbing Gristle.)  It is voiced as an attempt to converse with power, while describing the habits of power—indulgence in pleasure after conquest—but one wonders: does power see itself that way?  Call out, “Villain,” will power answer?

Perspective is almost everything—regarding personality, philosophy, power.  Whereas some of us may recall the 1990s as a good time for music, for the diversity of music, with musicians such Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie & the Blowfish, and Eye & I, Fishbone, Follow for Now, Jeffrey Gaines, and Vinnie James, Algiers bassist Ryan Mahan saw and heard something different: We grew up in the ‘90s, at a time where a lot of pop culture, pop music was as far away from its source or its origins as it could be,” Mahan says.  “So if you’re talking about rock ‘n’ roll moving quite far away from its origins in African music and its origins in soul music and its origins in gospel music.  So I think there’s an element of re-associating, clearly and on the face of our music … with the actual source of the music” (Mahan to Amelia Mason of NPR’s WBUR in Boston, September 16, 2015).  Mahan and his bandmates are reconnecting the music with the culture, and the culture with the politics.

Yet, sometimes it is hard to differentiate the words—the message!—in the singing of Fisher within dense Algiers arrangements: this is loud music!  Algiers’s song “Old Girl” has the line “When all the years pile on like cancer, just like you grew on me,” which hardly sounds sweet.  A somewhat martial beat and shouting vocal mark the historical, recriminatory “Irony. Unity. Pretext,” which makes plain how protest and rebellion do not always yield change, merely the rhetoric of progress—and congratulations issued too early.  “We’ll put our faith in Afro Pop / in a decolonized context / espouse the aesthete’s / contempt for ethos. / Irony. Utility. Pretext,” sings Fisher.  (The band has received approving notices from The New York Times and Rolling Stone, among other publications, mainstream and marginal.)  However, the singing may be—again—too buried in the mix of “But She Was Not Flying,” although one suspects the volume is not only an aesthetic choice or pleasure, or even an evocation of a sound equivalent of rambunctious social context, but a rationale for the fervid declarations of the voice, for shouting.  “Black Eunuch,” in which one man’s charm and desire are ignored—he seems not to bear the right gifts—while other men find satisfaction, conjures different associations musically—rock, dance, Native American, jazz.  National Public Radio’s Bob Boilen announced “Black Eunuch” as one of the “songs we love” (April 15, 2015).  “Games” is sung in what is now a surprisingly soft voice and appears to be about self-betrayal.  “In Parallax,” about leadership and betrayal, about evil, through the centuries, from biblical times to now, beginning with a recitative warning, refers to someone who seems to be friend, conscience, and master.

Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader.