Artist: Jack Rose
Album: Luck in the Valley
Label: Thrill Jockey
There was something close to the animalistic in some of the responses to Jack Rose’s horribly premature death at the age of 38 in the December of last year. This isn’t to say that all our responses to grief don’t involve some sort of pre-lingusitic animal reaction of course, just that in this case there seemed to be an undercurrent of pure animal expression – a reaching out to some part of Rose’s personality that defied or outstripped attempts at articulation. I didn’t meet Rose, but I can remember seeing him perform in the café area at the Green Man festival, a great bear of a man hunched over his steel-strung guitar in a light pall of rain. He played unamplified and was surrounded by a tense semi-circle of about 100 people, all tilting forward slightly in the gloom. It was as intense a performance as I’ve seen, Rose clawing at his guitar, producing a great thicket of sound, at times seemingly atonal and ragged, then spiralling into moments of near transcendent finger-picked beauty. As the set progressed, the crowd pressed in, drawn towards his heat. It was an extraordinary thing to witness, but it does seem to have been the way of things. He filled more than his allotted space, broke out and dragged the world towards him.
And now we’re left with this – in the face of such a loss, the frankly bleak task of laying an unfair weight on what is now a posthumous album. The temptation is to redraw the surrounds of this, map it backwards and go searching for sinews of meaning and tease out intimations of mortality that simply aren’t there. Rose was a prolific performer and writer, and in truth Luck in the Valley isn’t a remarkable record – it’s lit up by the depth of his passion and his at times ridiculous dexterity and talent for composition, but in the context of the body of his work it feels exploratory and is a further melding of what were his then preoccupations: the raga-inflected longer pieces that dominated his early releases and the raucous pre-war music he’d been playing both in a solo capacity (as Dr. Ragtime) and with the Black Twig Pickers – with a pointed lean towards the latter.
Luck in the Valley was in fact, loosely speaking, to be the third in a trilogy (which Rose had refereed to as his ‘Ditch Trilogy) – a trilogy which, along with his albums from last year with the Black Twig Pickers and the Dr. Ragtime band, was concerned with exploring the immediacy and spontaneity of pre-war music. It’s largely based on first-take recordings and revolves around rollocking rags and hoe-downs, 3 of which are covers of American classics (‘St Louis Blues’, ‘Everybody Ought to Pray Sometime’ and ‘West Coast Blues’), works by W.C. Handy, Blind Blake, and Dennis Crumpton and Robert Summer. The band itself is made up of a revolving cast of musicians including the incendiary Twig Pickers and the likes of Glenn Jones, Micah Smaldone and Harmonica Dan (what does he do?) – and as Rose had said in the past, they swing like a motherfucker. This is, for the most part, profoundly joyous, life-affirming music.
That said, the album does feature some of the ominous tones that Rose has explored from way back since his Pelt days, and that run throughout the body of his work. This is most notable on two tracks on Luck in the Valley – ‘Tree in the Valley’ and the opening track ‘Blues for Percy Danforth’, which will rightly be lifted into the pantheon of his best works. It’s a beautiful mix of picking and raga drones, and the key is how effortless it all sounds – those dextrous runs and the deep-pinned bass notes meshing perfectly into a whole that is so immediately the Rose sound that it near pierces the heart. As the track rises to its tumult and is met by a backgrounded jews harp and soft harmonica line you realise Rose, and his tight, tight band, were so in control of where they were going with all this that it seems impossible that there’ll be no more.
We wont talk of epitaphs and the like, for music of this ferocity and timelessness beats all that. Instead we should probably take it all in the manner it was intended – wild, on the way to some oblivion or other and reeking of animal sweat and joy.
Download: Jack Rose - Woodpiles On The Side of the Road
There was a lot of quite open grieving around the time of Rose's death, and some beautifully constructed tributes and paeans. One of the finest was David Morris's, over at Strangeglue. He also put together a fine radio tribute which you can still download.
Ethan Miller also put together a fine tribute, and included a download of a relatively recent Rose show from Fredricksburg, Virginia. The show features tracks from Luck in the Valley.
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Entries tagged as new weird america
I recently crapped on about the new Jackie-O Motherfucker record for The Line of Best Fit.
I wonder if the relatively safe nature of this record is indicative of the whole atrophying of the New Weird America thing - of its co-opting by the mainstream etc. I was listening back to Jackie-O's triple Live in Europe CD from 2002 and it sounds like a manifesto for the scene. It contains multitudes: free jazz skronk, wild bliss outs, a wringing through of 'Amazing Grace' - it's a mess but it has a fire in its belly that seems to be missing from Ballads.... Anyway, the review is below.
Artist: Jackie-O Motherfucker
Album: Ballads of the Revolution
In a brilliant short essay in The Wire, Byron Coley delineated the boundaries (or lack of) of the New Weird America scene – a term coined by David Keenan to describe that broad swathe of acts that had taken on John Fahey’s inbuilt experimental fervour and run with it, and in doing so had rediscovered and re-enlivened the haunted howl at the heart of the Old Weird America that had so entranced Greil Marcus in Invisible Republic - his book on The Basement Tapes. When Coley spoke of the common ground between jazz, noise, folk, psych, experimental, electronics and free rock he was of course describing the possibilities that the scene explored, but he might have been talking about Jackie-O Motherfucker…
The Jackie-O Motherfucker remit has always been a broad, inclusive thing: to delve with both hands into the claggy mulch of the American musical unconscious, dredge up what resides within and throw it into the air and see what clamour results from the humming tensions between sound and air. Consequently, listening to them can be a very visual and at times sublime experience, as if the weight of all that stratified music were absently present in the fragments they capture on tape. And naturally, because of inclusivity of their sound, they can also be a maddening self-indulgent mess.
All that said Ballads of the Revolution is probably their most coherent and song-based record to date. It still has that undercurrent of experimentation and the same sense of historical weight, but here it’s streamlined into (relatively) recognisable forms, which in its way is as subversive a move as they’ve pulled. Even the blissouts, when they come – like at the end of ‘The Cryin’ Sea’ – are understated and restrained. Perhaps it is due to a settled line up (the focus point of Tom Greenwood, plus Nick Bindeman, Danny Sasaki and Honey Owens; plus an assorted crew of scene luminaries such as Michael Duane and Lewi Longmire) or the mellowing of age (though god knows the live sets can still be violent and challenging) – whatever the reason, Ballads… is a lush and at times delicate piece of work.
This is nowhere more apparent than on the opening track, ‘Nightingale’ - a traditional ballad reworked as a kind of post-rock lullaby built around some aching pedal steel from Lewi Longmire and Greenwood’s flanged guitar and odd fragile vocal. ‘Skylight’ – a long-time Jackie-O live staple - follows a similar pattern but has a darker undertow of drones; Greenwood sounds more distant here too, deeper in the muck of the past. There’s an element of The Doors at their most opiated to ‘Skylight’, or some of Spacemen 3’s longer jams. Yet there’s always something else lurking with Jackie-O Motherfucker and it feels at a number of points, bizarre as it sounds, that ‘Skylight’ is going to mutate in ‘Sloop John B’. And while we’re at it, ‘The Dark Falcon’ featuring a knee trembling vocal from Honey Owens (intoning the liner notes from a Mamas and Papa’s album sleeve, no less), also seems to reseed ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, taking it apart and leaving a shell of treated guitars and sheet-metal skronk creaking in the breeze.
‘A Cryin’ Sea’ is the album’s centrepiece and throbs with the same psych/spacerock vibe as ‘Skylight’ – but you could argue that the track never quite delivers, that if anything, it suffers from the general sense of restraint that suffuses Ballads of the Revolution. The track is built around a bowel-deep bassline and swathes of spiralling guitar courtesy of Bindeman and special guest Michael Dustdevil, and whilst it has a propulsive psychedelic heart it shimmers towards a climax that never quite arrives. As the tumult gathers, you long for some of that free jazz squawk that fired up their early recordings.
Ultimately, Ballads of the Revolution is a worthy addition to the Jackie-O Motherfucker canon – a back catalogue impressive in its sweep and form. And while it does feel a little safe at times, in the context of their ever evolving sound and their continual reshaping of the musical traditions to which they are heirs, it’s another impressive foray into the sonic possibilities of forever. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess but you can rest assured it’ll be worth hearing.
Download: Jackie-O Motherfucker - Skylight