Rise of the Anachronauts

On Dan Hicks, Leonard Cohen, Etta James, and other fearless time travelers

I call them anachronauts: performers whose core appeal stems from their ability to transport listeners to another time and place. Whereas ordinary pop stars strive to intensify awareness of the present moment so that nothing else matters, anachronauts use archaic language, modes, and instrumentation to expand our egocentric understanding of the present with illuminating reminders of forgotten history.

I was still in high school when Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks’ 1971 live album Where’s the Money? hit the radio and permanently warped my sense of temporal reality. Now, precocious adolescents can get similarly bent hearing Hicks’s proprietary blend of western swing, Hawaiian slack-key blues, and gypsy jazz on his new CD, Tangled Tales. In town promoting the project last month, he wryly re-christened his sound “Caucasian hip-hop,” acknowledging his propensity for mining archaic genres for new tunes. Ever sifting through the past, Hicks never stops time-traveling, and while certain new songs like “Who Are You?” and “13-D” play like psychedelic vaudeville from Depression-era dance halls, a cover of Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” allows his twangy tenor to inhabit (slightly) more modern decades and environments.

Following hot on Dan’s idiosyncratic heels is a twentysomething acoustic warrior named Pokey LaFarge, who makes a bigger, more lasting impression playing kazoo and guitar than his pop-mainstream competition makes fronting entire electrified bands. A vocal polymorph, he shifts effortlessly from Gus Cannon-style jug-band humor (“Mr. Nobody”) to Mississippi John Hurt-style pathos (“Josephine”) through two indie albums of original material. This itinerant Kentucky-bred minstrel name-checks everybody from Bessie Smith and Guy Clark to Femi Kuti as influences on his MySpace page, where he proudly tags his own recordings “riverboat soul.”

Like Hicks and LaFarge, 71-year-old Etta James is a creative anachronism. Her first charting singles were risque r&b dance numbers closer in mood to Chuck Berry than to any of her black female peers. Her diction and phrasing always had more of the crisp, clean sound of early rock ‘n’ roll than the stylized drawl and grit common to ’60s soul. This versatility is captured on her 1974 album Come a Little Closer, where she flows from Curtis Mayfield-style funk to a vintage Bessie Smith cover to the up-tempo doo-wop swing the Pointer Sisters banked on the year before singing Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” If you saw Beyoncé play Etta in Cadillac Records, you need to see the real thing work a nightclub. If you’re lucky, she’ll reprise her timeless version of Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” — the witchiest incantation Nina Simone never recorded.

Not that James is the only anachronaut steeped in witchy mojo. I first heard Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1972 and was enraptured but confused. What exactly was Cohen doing? His philosophical “folk” songs were vaguely Biblical but not gospel, rock-ish but not raucous, and he obviously had contracted the blues while in college instead of at some spooky crossroads waiting to sell, rent, or mortgage his soul. No, whether contemplating cabala, tarot, voodoo, or zen, Cohen was keeping his gothic Hebrew soul intact, along with its searchable database of 6,000 years of spiritual longing. On his current world marathon of miraculous three-hour shows, this moody troubadour and his music still defy category.

Sharing many of Cohen’s medieval and personal predilections are a group of polyphonic vocalists from Marseilles named Lo Còr de la Plana. Singing allegorical and sexy stories in Occitan (a dying language that was politically controversial even when Eleanor of Aquitaine spoke it), Lo Còr blew the roof off Symphony Space this April with 12th-century melodies sung over thunderous hand and foot percussion. Sounding sometimes like a Gregorian choir and sometimes like Mediterranean bar brawlers, the group fights cultural chauvinism like all these anachronauts do — by asserting the equal worth of every time, person, and place.

Published in: Village Voice, May 5, 2009