The illusion of much modern recorded band-oriented music (dance is a whole other trip of course) is that it is played live: the whole band laying it down for you in one perfect passionate take.
Of course, since Les Paul in the early 1950s, multitrack recording has allowed the performance to be staggered in time – pulled apart and put back together. The rise of huge multitrack desks in the late 70s and early 80s took multitrack recording to an almost ridiculous level, and of course ProTools has carried recording beyond ridiculous – to a degree where every touch of a hi-hat can be modelled and moulded to diamond-like perfection.
There are certain forms of music that benefit from such infinite care and almost forensic sound-shaping. And there are musics that don’t. The latter is music that is based on a rawness and immediacy that is part of its intrinsic make-up – such as Blues.
Tasmanian (yes, folks that’s about as far from Chicago as you can get) Blues guitarist Pete Cornelius recorded his new album Groundswell in a neighbour’s holiday house in Elephant Pass, virtually entirely live. And it shows.
There is a theory that says that every step of the process between the artist’s heart and the listener’s ear diminishes the emotional force of what the artist is trying to say. If true, that certainly applies to simpler, more direct music such as country, blues and roots where there is not too much left once you strip the emotive power away. Cornelius’ decision to record live was smart, and as good a proof of this theory as I have heard for a while.
Cornelius made his name fronting The DeVilles, a hard rockin’ Texas blues powerhouse that matched Cornelius’ SRV-style gun-slinger trip. But the band has settled into a more mellow thing, firstly on Pete’s last album Tumbleweed and the new one Groundswell. As his music has focused on songwriting, it has taken on extra dimension, away from guitar solos and Texas raunch.
Not that there are no longer moments of real guitar fire – the Hendrix-howl solo on ‘Repo Man’ shows where Cornelius’ rep comes from. But hopefully Groundswell will give him a parallel rep as a warm-hearted songwriter for songs such as opener ‘Drinking the Blues’ – a sly New Orleans groove – or the very pretty ‘Goodnight My Love’ – a soul lullaby to his new young daughter.
And like SRV, like Eric Clapton, Cornelius’ voice is a perfect foil for his guitar-playing – check acoustic closer ‘Strong Suit’, a song so nicely rendered I truly expect to see it covered by other artists. There is a slight country lilt to his voice which works equally well across the Meters-like hipshaker ‘Talkin’ Bout New Orleans’ and the sinewy lope of ‘Cold Water’ (with its wry – and very funny – lyric), and matches the country-blues filigree of his playing.
His playing – yes, still dazzling and highly original while still reflecting the colours and shapes of his obvious influences – is nicely balanced against the songwriting and vocal (and great band interpretations of the songs) across the album. A player of Pete Cornelius’ imagination and great fingers could just put out another collection of sizzling jams and the Australian Blues audience would eat it up.
It is testament to his musical evolution – that quality that separates out the true long-term artists in any genre – that he went for a wider palette of colours and emotions that make up Groundswell.
Published September 2013 on theorangepress.net