Perfect Sound Forever

JP Jones: Rough-Cut Angel on the Roadside

Photos from the JP Jones website

The Hidden Goldmine in American Folk-Rock
Part 1 by Mark S. Tucker
(December 2006)

Folk music has enjoyed an astonishingly diverse modern evolution which has unfortunately gone largely unnoticed amid a clamorous rock and roll circus, doubly unfortunate because a wealth of stylistic wrinkles has imbued rock with an attractiveness bidding fair to outstrip most of its base modes, which have settled way too smugly into splintered conventions. Folk was kinda guilty of the same thing, as what had been a centuries-long evolution of plainsong into the folky '50's resulted in an enjoyable but grossly limited palette. The '60's changed that.

In the psychedelic era, a new consciousness was provoked by drug consumption, sharply contrasting whatever had emerged from the standard pharmaceutical abuses encouraged in "normal" society. Borders were trammeled, essences bent, limits pushed and a general expansion enjoyed. Donovan, Cat Stevens, Tim Buckley, Bob Dylan and a potpourri of scruffy hipsters took the reins from the aging and tiring Guthries and Seegers, soldiers who'd served their time and then some. The young Turks and Turkettes fashioned new quilts from bolts of old patchwork, crafting strikingly transformed avenues, creating expressions which had never previously reposed in the realm. Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, for instance, brought an unearthly new beauty to the realm anciens while Joan Baez nearly redefined the zenith of the human voice in new applications harking back to the apogees of Pope Gregory's spawn, an evolution even the brilliant de Mauchet would've delighted in laying ear to.

Because these composers and performers brought such a cornucopia to the table, kindred stylists soon absorbed these riches and rushed to press them into similar genres, giving rise to Barefoot Jerry, David Bromberg, Nick Drake and even the progressive warp of such groups as Help Yourself, the Strawbs, and similar rock offshoots. Some would take long epochs attaining recognition for excellence, others would rise and fall, and too many would be fated to languish despite a multitude of gifts. Tom Waits had to cool his heels considerably before the masses understood his very odd genius; gents like Iain Matthews shot to the heights with the superb Matthews Southern Comfort and Plainsong, then fell just as meteorically while issuing excellent fare subsequent to struggling as a solo artist; and John Martyn, to name just one yet to rest in proper laurels despite decades of incredibly good work, has never received much echo of his true proper due except in his homeland... even there under-recognized.

Folk invaded everything, just as the rough rock side had, but this gentler style never gained the audience it deserved. There's been only one really excellent magazine devoted to it (Dirty Linen) and the style's imprint has been seen in jazz, novo classical, balladic rock, world musics, and many other forms. Similarly, folk itself imported jazz, light classical, some of the odder streams of rock's distortions - and whatever besides that suited the vision craftsmen and women labored to evoke, preserving the strain in forward-looking contexts, an evolution that has yet to peak in our day.

Nor has the trad idea faded entirely. Thus, all along, we've seen the likes of Taj Mahal, David Wilcox (the American, not the a-hole Canadian redneck), Tracy Chapman, James Lee Stanley, Richie Havens, Suzanne Vega, Marc Cohn and so on. The varying fortunes of practitioners never deterred newbies from cropping up every so often, and, of course, there were always the underdogs, top-notch artists who would never find the tortured highway to renown.

In that, after a brief hope at treading the path of the gods, one guy has been a far side-stream staple for over 30 years and his powers have always been of top-flight caliber right from the start, perenially challenging, unusually satisfying, highly explorative, deeply personal, and never anything less than thoroughly engaging: John Paul Jones, who, due to the involuntary same birthname as Led Zeppelin's famed bassist, has operated under the name of JP Jones since 1973, with the release of an LP on the ill-fated Windfall label, home to the infamous Mountain.

Columbia Records was the parent of Windfall, the former being Clive Davis' domain, the latter Felix Pappalardi's and a tiny sub-entity meant for Mountain, the later West, Bruce & Laing, and a few side acts like David Rea, Brothers, Bill Wilson and Jones. However, whatever may have been possible in that congeries, the stable met, like so many, an untimely demise as Columbia chafed and abrased Windfall into a court battle and subsequent early grave. Jones' slab, entitled simply John Paul Jones, to this moment mistaken by record collectors as an overlooked release from the Led Zepper, sold 8000 copies, received absolutely no promotion, and sank into a cold sunset unnoticed. It was one of too many such frustrating events, but, if such things present any consolation, the record was accompanied by the demise of the Windfall label itself. There'd be no second chance in Tinsel Town for either.

For many, that would've been the end of the matter, but not Jones who proved to be a die-hard, even if it meant fame and a just fan base wouldn't be his, though not for lack of deserving one. He knocked around the NYC venues (CBGB's, Folk City, etc.) and no less a name than John Hammond Sr. - who produced Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Alberta Hunter, and Stevie Ray Vaughn - liked what he heard, as did Ed Freeman, producer of Tim Hardin, Don McLean, Tom Rush, and Roy Buchanan. They evinced definite interest in the newly unindentured lone wolf. Hammond dropped by Jones' home and demos were produced, a second set later manifesting under Freeman, but, for reasons unrevealed, nothing came of the dual admiration- no LP was issued. Nonetheless, Jones (though management mightn't be stooping to lend a hand) was recognized by peers and went on to share stages with Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Little Feat, and Bruce Springsteen, amongst others.

A little while back, in quiet recognition of what had been a proven talent now grown to decidedly maturer proportions, Sony re-released his debut LP on CD. It came and went as quickly as the original, echoing the fact that the market was no wiser than it had ever ever been.

So what was it about this guy? That's not hard to determine. It was "merely" the exact same indefinable something that makes one stop and listen to a hypnotic busker on the street corner while gratefully passing by all the crap blasting irritatingly from Sam Goody's tin speakers in shopkeep throughways. All folk music begins with an unusually intense compassion for the human condition blended with a gritty ability to look at life squarely, eschewing the fairy tales of herd indoctrination for the uncompromising and often heartbreaking understandings of bipedal creatures, the horribly flawed human race too rarely capable of transcendent grace.

Jones, in his past woodshedding, matched a Baptist Bible Seminary education with a BA in music from Amherst, forming his own highly humanistic, non-dogmatic, hard-tack-and-hope style blending psychology, spirituality, and an absorbingly rough literacy, a way with words and turns of phrase that have always marked every true poet's specialized desmesnes. He was, though, neither poet nor musician per se, but someone who coalesced both and then concentrated on climbing to the top of an acumen he knew was necessary to serve Art. Regretfully, I was unable to locate a copy of the Windfall LP. It hardly matters; 1982's Voluntown, Jones' re-emergence in documented form, is a great starting point.

In the long drought between the big-label debut platter and this first indie release, he came face to face with the dilemma of not having a platform. Previously, he'd drawn up a small-time folk/rock band, John Train, silently tributizing Phil Ochs' notorious pseudonym, coughing out two rock singles. But mainly, he had worked day jobs as a commercial artist, moonlighting open mic nights solo. Where once Jones had headlined, he now joined the punters. Hard knocks but, by 1991, a time in which he wrote but did not record, the troubador was through scuffling, getting intensely serious once again.

Voluntown's liner presents us with the head shot of a long-haired gent looking like the mid-ground between Terry Reid and David Lee Roth. The music, though, very quickly dispels any expectation that he might be even remotely like the guy first tagged as Led Zeppelin's singer (Reid) or the infamous Hollywood bonehead who put a whole new stamp on hard-rock and metal vocals (Roth). Jones' voice, in fact, was capable of not only the expected folk range but also of exotic inflection, pitch shift, and the entire palette of what marks artists away from the platoon of part-time lung-scramblers prowling mostly for groupies and drugs.

The CD was recorded over a period of years and, right from the opener, "You Gotta Come to Me," takes a broad panoply of devices, techniques, and skills, putting them to immediate use in creating a modern atmosphere of languid skyscrapers and city scenes. The intent, though, isn't to paint plateaus of technology but instead to dive into the human heart, as the first stanza makes no mistake in showing:

I walked for miles up a barefoot highway
Stood my ground before the Hounds of Hell
I been delivered to a higher power
Ya die a couple times and ya live to tell

Jones never wraps himself in Christ, as practically the whole of Christendom does - in fact saying he is "not a Christian" and "not not a Christian" - rather, he seems to be what one would call 'a true Christian,' if that wary sobriquet can be peacefully laid, understanding what the Nazarene was doing and why he was doing it, agreeing with the transcendent's simple messages conveyed through a life of trial and redemption. That suffix at the end of "Christ" ("-ian"), you see, means "like" and, of all the thousands of yodelling Christers one might have the dispeasure of meeting, maybe a dozen will ever be "like Christ," donning a good deal more than just easily pacific attributes and memorized passages. Some rare few live the message, engaging with the messy attributes of life in order to purify them... and themselves.

Jones shoulders a naked honesty without which the Christian example can never be understood. He doesn't speak in social niceties or herd mannerisms but balances the hope he never quite loses, even through stormy passages, with the appraisive quality an unhedging mind must wield. Nor is his story used for self-aggrandizement, as is so popular with clergy, but only to tell the expectant listener what's realistically in store, what cannot be avoided, sympathizing with the duties, assuring the trepidatious they're not alone.

The signpost to spiritual renewal is forever displayed through a disciplined mirror in Jones' work. Neither saccharine nor proselytizing, he's just laying it on the line. "Ruins of the Dawn," later in the CD, makes this even more apparent, filled with Christian metaphors but redolent of a reality no church could ever admit to, a trait one never finds far from the composer's pen.

The guitar work, keyboards, harp playing, and vocals - as well as all writing and production - are executed by the artist and they're surprising. The time between JP Jones and Voluntown was well spent immersed in diverse modes. Some of the release is even on the order of a Kenny Loggins chart hit, polished, smooth, and rocking. His capabilities as a folk guitarist are unquestioned, there's little he can't handle adeptly, but the presence of a screamingly melodious rock lead-line floating above the churning ensemble (composed of sessioneers entirely sympathetic to the music) is a bit unexpected, soon very much relished.

However, just so the listener has no doubts, Jones switches, in the third song, "Still Lonely, Still Dreamin," to a single light - just him, his axe, and a brief harmonica outro. "No Lights on the Water" rapidly buttresses it, where the raw and Dylanesque "Lonely" transforms into a Bruce Cockburn-ish manifestation, complete with experimental slices containing unexpected chordal progressions, adopting a few of the New Age turns folk had been taking. The wistfulness of "What Never Was" is elegant, steeped in the kind of pensive emotionalism folk music is more likely to produce than any other genre, not all that far removed from torch songs... minus the overproduction. On the other hand, "333 Drunkards" displays a humor that breaks the surface of bittersweet reminiscences, chortling from time to time, a gritty jape harboring inebriatedly grinning rue.

Three years passed and Broken Open (1994) came out. It starts off with a John Stewarty cut, "If You Will Walk With Me," signaling the CD's abrupt downshift into a very genred vein. "Letter to Ramone" has an Al Stewart-ish construction, rockin' but not harsh, embodying a sentiment one will only rarely encounter in the world of pounding drums and crunching guitars:

Tell me what's the payoff
Ragged poet of the street
They say the truth is bitter
Ain't it really bittersweet?
Now half the people want revenge
The rest just want protection
The whole world's got a broken heart
I don't claim there's no connection

The succeeding sing-songy "Hymn" is a powerfully basic ode to life's many pains and hopes, very Dylanesque, exposing an affectingly imperfect voice tearing slightly as it reaches for the higher registers, just as Waits' does, sonically portraying the subtext of the lyrics. Even the wryly savage take on yuppies and aristos, "Poodles from Hell," is a slow saunter through a folkie's wont to laidback insights. "'S Folks Like Me" contains a hot summer's south-40 sonority, a paean to individualism, displaying the hidden dimensions separating the men from the boys, the writers from the poets. In it is contained an ability to turn a simple phrase so that its effect is far greater than the sum of its words:

I do my dancin'
To a different drummin'
Takin' the chances that haven't been tried
If this offends, maybe you had it comin'
If we were friends, maybe you let it slide

There's an updated mid-West sensibility there, the kind of rough solipsism bred in the plains, now taken to a more citified expression, guarded and cynical but with a side order of hopefulness, a wary individuality that would like connection but won't seek it, just note carefully if it arises. Throughout, the disc is noticeably different from Voluntown, as if Jones had decided early in his now-long schedule to re-affirm from whence he'd come, re-baptizing himself. The closing number, "Goodnight Baby," is a bluesy waltz, an odd addressing, or so it seems, to child and wife simultaneously, cagily confusing exactly who's being addressed at any point, a somewhat weary elegy to married life.

Here, we also see that Jones had shorn his long locks and cultivated a facial stubble popular at the time, looking a bit like the Loggins he still sometimes sounded akin to, perhaps an eventide heart-throb in a pastel Miami night-jacket. It was one of many transitions that would occur through the years as he constantly changed to fit what he was doing.

Another three years passed and the composer tried something he wouldn't repeat again, an experiment illuminating the basement of his sonic powers, a window onto his talents as an instrumentalist, a composer separated from the narrative formulary. Bard (1997) is a purely instrumental release, Celticly slanted, an influence only rarely heard in him up to this juncture, semi-classical, very vaguely along the lines of Americans like Grofé and Gershwin. Though it wasn't intended to sit in that genre, Jones' unconventionally disparate method doesn't follow easy time signatures or simple circle-of-fifths cop-outs, but rather reaches for a more Impressionistic book of sensefields and gestures. Naturally, one could only term this as 'progressive' and indeed there are the same broad elements that Anthony Philips, Jon Mark, Gordon Giltrap, and others had assumed over their latter years, a diversion from norms that rarely paid one back financially while providing an outlet for, in Jones' case, all the collegiate training, crafting the kind of cult item progrock fans search for (and good luck to 'em: locating a copy of this is difficult).

Entirely wrought and played by Jones, the main sound of the CD lays in through keyboards, and it isn't until "The Passion of Harvey" that a Camel-ish background steps to the fore. The Camel members, some will already know, are not novices and a very large part of what's accounted for group's post-Pete Bardens success has been Andy Latimer's sure-writing hand. Jones shows the same schooling, with cinematic and magisterial flourishes, complex descriptive passages, and arrangements depending on the entire song to be properly understood.

The release suffers from the expected. It's not what he's worked at for so many years and, thus, nowhere near as smooth as it should be. Also, the engineering's a bit compressed, without a whole lot of range- volume's covering up for atmosphere and not entirely successfully. One can't help but notice though that it's actually a blueprint for a perhaps-future final work-up and, if Jones ever rehearses it for ensemble performance, it will be exhilaratingly elegant, very much an opus to stand with works like Camel's Harbor of Tears, filled with compositional fascinations and ornamentational attractions, in parts breathless and elegiac.

Angels on the Road (1998) took him right back to the straight-and-narrow. Vinnie Pasternak's violin tipped the listener, with Jones' harmonica alongside, quickly buttressing airs into the drummer's slow time signature. Exasperation with life marks the CD's tone, the core line of "One of These Days" ("I'm so sick and tired of the world we live in") noting the toll taken on the empathetic mind and it's also nastily evinced when "69-er Diner" turns the 'waitress with a heart of gold' paradigm on its head, telling of a hustlerette cynically vamping customers. She turns into a gritty Virgil ushering one john through a tour of lower-middle-class Hell, remarking "no one's ever free until they see they are in chains". Jones voice is more Dylanesque than ever but there's now a richness that begins to suggest Mark Knopfler, while his band, The Loose Associations, has his back like a tigress protecting offspring, tight, to mix metaphors, as a newly tuned bedspring.

Ever heard of a 10-minute folk song? Not often we haven't. "69-er Diner" takes its generous time disbursing the tale wherein Jones' college days become slyly noticeable, sifted through a battered colander, deftly displaying a wheatstraw-chewing take on Sophoclean revelations about twisted faces behind the masks sold to customers in life's market. "Peggy's Tale" returns to a solo tune, a wrenching story of suburban madness, loss, and absolutely no redemption, a recognition that things don't always turn out prosaically. The listener can't help but note the increasing existentialism in Jones' songs this time around. One also can't help but be taken with the extraordinary cleverness of the lyrics, demonstrating a way with words that modern poetry aficionados long for... and don't find in present-day featherweight tomes. Length and depth appear again in the 13-minute "Crossroads Where I Stand," presenting Homer and Sophocles as bosom buddies.

What's extraordinary about "Angels" is the fact that it was recorded live in three days in an eight track studio with minimal overdubs and just as little post-production. We often hear of the unique patina whirlwind studio sessions have had on stand-out releases and that's clearly shown here. Even when depressive, though, the CD's fresh as a teenager on a first date, brimming with an of-the-moment brio irrepressible from the git-go.

"Ashes" (1999) maintained the live/studio format, with a variation in the Loose Associations personnel. The lead cut ("What Took Ya So Long?") more firmly reveals the Knopfler vocal tone that's been evolving, well grounded in golden mellifluity. The vigor of the songs generally increases here, a sense of urgency replacing what there was of Angels's pensive sides. "Black and Blue" pulses in a Kenny Rankin-ish tempo, a speeding Fairlane down dark byways. "To Be A Man" is the darkest Jones song to date, commencing in Stygian atmospheres, a plaint of profound isolation in times of war and savagery, and the tune literally freezes the listener in its rivetting sadness and dull anger, standing amongst rock's most affecting anti-war compositions.

The longer one listens to Ashes, the more plain the reason for its titling becomes. Something was eating at Jones, perhaps an intolerance for the fairytale stories so ingrained in society, perhaps the frustration of seeing hopes tread upon daily, but the CD drives an arrow straight through the heart. The band takes a back seat this time, brushing on the backgrounds rather than surrounding him. The composer has the spotlight but the instrumentation's interesting, including dumbek, djembe, triangle, mellotron (or a synth string patch, not sure which) among the standard back-up. "Don't Feel Guilty" uptempos "To Be A Man" with an edgily clipped cadence, in many ways the approaching doom that produced the earlier song. Appropriately, Ashes is Jones' most distanced work, his soul and talent naked.

See part 2 of the JP Jones article and our JP Jones interview

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