Some 70 years behind the times and yet still cooler than the rest of us, Pokey LaFarge is like the musical equivalent of the Austin Powers character brought out of cryogenic freeze to do battle with the forces of bad music by reminding the world of a time when popular songs still embodied taste, composition, and a timeless charisma instead of the diarrhetic pap dictated by the fickle tastes of 15-year-olds that we suffer from today.
Pokey is no bit. Spend some time in the man’s presence and you’ll discover that his Dapper Dan decorum doesn’t have an on/off switch. Ragtime jazz and hillbilly bop, it’s just what happens when Pokey opens his mouth and assembles some friends around to interpret his original songs. Sure it’s a throwback sort of show, but Pokey is a throwback sort of guy. Even if you happen to bump into him at a Wienerschnitzel and don’t identify yourself as a fan, he’d still look, talk and act like a guy frozen in 1937.
It can be a scary moment for the fans of a small time artist when they finally see their ship come in after slagging it out for a decade or more and sign to a serious label. This is just what Pokey did when he put pen to paper with Rounder Records to release Something in the Water. Frankly, the question about Pokey after ten years of music was where could he go when his signature sound was so keenly tied to a previous era. The answer was to go big, and go up.
Some could point to Pokey’s big break coming with his last album, a self-titled release in 2013 with Jack White’s Third Man Records that was produced by Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show. Though it was a fine project, it lacked a little pizzaz, and though Jack White and Third Man Records may be sexy music names, it remains to be seen if they really have the business acumen to release big records beyond Jack’s own works and small-run side project vinyl stuff.
Something in the Water pulls out all the stops and captures Pokey on his ‘A’ game. This is Pokey with what sounds like all the resources he could want at his disposal, and a selection of original songs that rival any others that bare his name. Forget about Pokey LaFarge falling victim to rust or repeating himself, Something in the Water might symbolize his high water mark when it’s all said and done.
Though style is what you think of first with Pokey, his singing just keeps getting better, displaying ridiculous control, and bringing in a full band with a horn section whose worked out all the kinks on the road results in recordings that feel alive and looking for ears to infect with fuzzy grooves and tones. You can focus on the style and the arrangements, but don’t overlook that at its heart, this is still a songwriter’s project, and many of these songs could be imported into any era or style of music, and their sentiments would still ring pure.
Pokey had me a bit worried at the beginning that he’d gone all hipster on us when I saw the album cover, but it’s actually an exact illustration of the lines from the title track. Something in the Water includes a lot of odes to the ladies, both for their virtues and their demons, and with Pokey always playing the foil. And for limiting himself in such a narrow window of influence, Pokey still evidences a lot of variety on this record.
Another individual who deserves praise is the producer Jimmy Sutton. Possibly best known as the upright bass player for fellow throwback artist JD McPherson, Sutton is one of those selfless side players who could just as easily be focusing only on his own music, but lends his hands to these other artists and is the secret ingredient behind a lot of great old school roots music.
Pokey is also a proud Midwestern native, and shows it on Something in the Water. Originally from Bloomington, IL and now based out of St. Louis, the Midwest isn’t a place you normally think about as a somewhere to thump your chest and brag about, but through his music, Pokey traces the lineage of some of America’s best audio styles and eras back to the breadbasket, and back to the time when the region was the gateway to the West, a romantic notion in the minds of Easterners, and a harbor for a hodgepodge of music styles carried on the backs of people searching for a place to plant their dreams.
Something in the Water is a real hoot, a toe tapper, and a good time that also eases into a little heartbreak in spurts. It’s old music for old souls, those lost in time, and those fond of flyover country.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up.
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