Robertson contacts his Native American heritage


March 19, 1998|By J.D. Considine Pop/rock Rebekah

Robbie Robertson

Contact from the Underground World of Redboy (Capitol 54243)

Robbie Robertson has always had a flair for musical Americana. When he was writing for the Band, he touched on such musical bedrock as blues, gospel and country; as a solo artist, he evoked both the dark, swampy aura of New Orleans and the dry, rambling spaces of the Southwest.

But it wasn't until he did the music for the television documentary "The Native Americans" that he began to explore an important part of his own musical roots. As a child in Canada, he spent summers on the Six Nations Reservation (his mother is of Mohawk descent) and heard a lot of Native American music, in addition to country and blues. As he grew older, that Native American culture remained a part of him -- but it wasn't as easy to express as his love for country and blues.

With "Contact from the Underground World of Redboy," Robertson finds a most unlikely solution. Its 10 songs draw from traditional Native American songs and chants, and it even uses Inuit throat singers on one song. The context Robertson has devised to hold these elements together isn't the roots-oriented rock he made with the Band, but the sample-and-loop aesthetic of London club music.

It may seem an unlikely combination, but the two fit together quite nicely. Because a lot of Native American music relies more on rhythm and repetition than on Western-style harmony, it's perfectly suited to the lean, groove-oriented approach of techno, ambient and dub. By using native chants and song fragments as core riffs, Robertson is able to respect his sources while still creating something that's entirely his own.

"The Sound Is Fading" is typical. It opens with eerie, ambient-style synths and builds its beat around a loop of Native American chants. Next, we hear a sample of a 1942 field recording of a Paiute Nation song sung by a 16-year-old girl. Robertson then plays with this melodic fragment, framing it with a slowly shifting bed of synths, drums and guitar. Its haunting, dreamlike sound recalls the rich, textural play of U2's "Pop" album -- no surprise, since the track was mixed by "Pop" producer Howie B -- while the use of the sampled vocal has more in common with the music of Deep Forest.

Robertson plays with these sounds in a number of ways. "In the Blood" has a strong dance component to its sound, what with the churning drums, rumbling bass and sampled vocal chants. But instead of making those elements the focus, as with "The Sound Is Fading," Robertson instead plays them as background, using them to propel the song's ominous, bluesy melody. Likewise, "Stomp Dance" incorporates a unity song performed by the Six Nations Women Singers, which Robertson folds into a song of his own, giving the piece a sound and feel similar to some of Peter Gabriel's African-oriented writing.

"Rattlebone," by contrast, is almost all groove and texture, with Robertson rapping much of the lyric over a dense bed of thumping rhythm, looped samples (including some amazing use of Inuit throat singing) and squalling guitar. It's by no means the same sort of songwriting as "In the Blood," but it's every bit as catchy.

There's more to "Contact" than mere groove, of course. "Peyote Healing," for example, is a song performed by two "roadmen" -- two healers from the Native American Church -- which Robertson fleshes out with reverb, a brief, mournful guitar solo and a wispy wash of keyboard color to create a calming oasis of sound. "Sacrifice," on the other hand, is anything but soothing, as Robertson weaves taped comments by jailed American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier into the song's bass-heavy pulse.

No matter how they're used, though, the Native American elements on this album seem to have totally reinvigorated Robertson's writing. Here's hoping he continues to mine this vein, so that he can get an even better grasp of his heritage and help us understand yet another aspect of musical America. ***1/2

Remember To Breathe (Elektra 62115)

Although Rebekah's age, voice and attitude are enough to make her seem like one more girl singer swept into the search for a new Alanis Morissette, the sound and sensibility she presents on "Remember To Breathe" is clearly her own. It isn't just that she has fresh ideas and a wonderful way with language, though that's more than enough to make "Sin So Well" instantly addictive; what really makes this album stand out from the pack is its musical range. From the buoyant, new-wave pulse of "Hey Genius" to the Joni Mitchell-gone-country flavor of "Be Your Own," Rebekah covers an enormous amount of ground, yet manages to make each song sound strikingly individual. Definitely a singer to watch. ***

J.D. Considine


The Chinese Album (Sire/Warner Bros. 46851)

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.