The music of Xavier Rudd—full of pulsing didgeridoos and happy-hippie ditties like “Better People” and “Let Me Be”—has long been aligned with all things sunshine-y and beach-y. Not that the Australian multi-instrumentalist and pro surfer is penning new millennium versions of “Surfin’ Safari”: His reggae grooves have always underscored messages of humanity and environmentalism. Still, if a listener wanted to tune out too much deep thought, Rudd’s staple harmonica, bouncy kick drum and tie-dyed backdrop provided plenty of feel-good distraction.
But, with the recent release of his fifth album, Dark Shades of Blue (Anti, 2008), Rudd steps decidedly away from the 21st-century Beach Boy role.
“[Blue] is going to surprise a lot of people, and I think some people will be disappointed, or at least disconcerted, as it’s nowhere near as accessible as any of Xavier Rudd’s previous releases,” writes Blogger Leap in the Dark (aka Richard Marcus, the Canadian editor of arts and culture magazine Epic India).
Don’t mistake these musings as a bad sign: The writer goes on to note, “This is an album of complex songs highly appropriate to the complexity of the world that we live in today. Oh, and holy f**k it’s great.”
Praise or criticism, Rudd doesn’t seem particularly concerned, one way or the other. “The audience has been supportive of what I’ve done,” he tells Xpress. “A lot of people are on the journey with me.”
And it is his journey. Most often a one-man-act, Rudd limits even his solo recording process to collaborations with renowned percussionist Dave Tolley and a select few samples.
As for his new direction, Rudd says, “I’ve kind of achieved things on this album that I haven’t in the past. We’ve captured the heavy, darker elements of my music. It has a thickness.”
Indeed, Blue veers away from the rub-a-dub style of discs past, edging toward an industrial sound with aggressive guitars and menacing, metallic percussion—a sonic fullness belying the CD’s small cast.
The opening track, “Black Water,” thrusts the listener into a swampy, oppressive netherworld of cymbal crashes and predatory slide guitar, setting the mood for the disc. Still, fans of Rudd’s previous work shouldn’t write off this latest iteration. By Blue‘s third track (“Secrets”), the musician’s vocals are more up front and he blends his funk-tinged, “Superstition”-reminiscent lyrics with fuzzy effects and slinky jazz beats. That track is followed by Peter Gabriel-flavored “Guku,” a soaring tribute to the Australian aboriginal people from whom Rudd draws inspiration.
The title is a sort of nickname for a man whom Rudd calls a brother. “He came to me eight years ago, and I was adopted into his clan,” the musician recalls. “There are still a lot of unanswered questions I’d like to ask him.” But this mentor recently passed away, and respecting the native tradition, Rudd can’t speak his adoptive brother’s given name for eight years. No matter: The song conveys expansiveness and emotion in four brief minutes, all the while showcasing the didgeridoo playing for which Rudd is known.
Yes, the buzzing Aboriginal drone instrument is still central to Rudd’s work, as are backing vocals contributed by native Australian singers. Even the laid-back surfer vibe—the style that positioned Rudd in the company of other surfers-turned-songwriters like Jack Johnson and Donavon Frankenreiter—isn’t completely missing from Blue. The track “Hope You’ll Stay,” for example, resonates earthiness.
“I’ve always been an open channel,” Rudd says of his relationship to songwriting. “I live and breath music—I don’t write anything down. I store it up in my head. I’ve never sat down and tried to write a song.”
Even when he scored the upcoming Matthew McConaughey / Woody Harrelson / Willie Nelson film, Surfer, Dude (the title alone should reassure listeners that Rudd hasn’t abandoned his former style), the musician stuck to his organic approach. “We did it over three days,” he says. “We just went into the studio and jammed it out.”
who: Xavier Rudd (Griffin House opens)
what: Singer/songwriter, didgeridoo virtuoso and one-man band
where: The Orange Peel
when: Tuesday, Sept. 16. 9 p.m. ($17 in advance, $18 at the door. 225-5851. www.theorangepeel.net).