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 2 by Mark S. Tucker

Back to Jerusalem (2000) resumed, thank God, the practice of printing lyrics, which had been absent for a couple releases, setting out words always far too important to scamp. Almost from the moment of release, the CD would be seen as one of Jones' two best, though the entire catalogue, save Bard, is uniquely comprehensive, merely variant in each disc's concentrations. Certainly, Jerusalem is his lushest, most mainstream music, occasionally even echoing some of Tom Cochrane's Red Rider comps (Cochrane, in case ya hadn't noticed, is really just a rockified folkie, thus his unique strengths). "Red Hot Blue" is this CD's most experimental cut, a song that decomponentizes the modern folk idiom just a bit in order to see where things might lead. The writer's exercises are never outré but are obviously determined attempts to peek up the muse's skirt.

Ensemble work resumed its centrality here, basically a greatly augmented Loose Associations support, and, as may be guessed from the title, the centricity of Christianity, proper Christianity, is overwhelming, as is the frailty of human confidence, a trait covered so many times in Jones' oeuvre that writer Hugh Blumenfield was moved to note it in the back cover blurb.

Does anyone remember that moment in "Girl from the North Country" when Dylan and Cash mismatched their vocals so horribly yet so movingly? I was a teenager, but it was one of the most stirring musical moments of my life - SO wrong yet so right, opening the wound of the emotional self vividly, revealing a lack of confidence that can crack the shell of human conceits in unadorned moments when the barriers fall completely. With Jones, this is a constant, the result of radical honesty but also an artistic implement that colors his work down to its roots. It's sometimes impossible to determine whether this is an artistic affectation or the real deal, as he often otherwise reaches the pitches he fragments on here. I have to suspect it's actually a superb effect most of the time it's done. Could be wrong, but back to the point: Jerusalem integrates everything Jones was doing up to the very moment, producing a lush cycle of songs not at all lacking in the fiercer moments of the past.

The CD was constructed in layers, the original tracks being MIDI files with instrumentation dubbed atop, one piece at a time. Jones had done all the sequencing himself, laid down his own guitars and vocals and then gathered others to supplement him. The process was lengthy and elaborate, but, as can be perceived, quite like the building of a mansion over a blueprint. At it's terminus, most of the MIDI material had been replaced, but the cuts remained true to their original forms, with usual flourishes and deviations inserted over time. Salvation Street (2001) kept to the wealth of sessioneers, continuing Jerusalem's populated spaciousness. "Long Blue Train" is a cross between Nick Drake and John Martyn, an understated tune carrying ravishing beauty amidst its grim-ish subject matter - bums and losers - an 8-minute underside tour winding up in heaven's tumult, sonic cousin to a couple of Cockburn's tunes, "Lord of the Starfields" and "If I Had a Rocket Launcher."

And my love, mama, shall be
Bold to all women and men
And no one shall shame or
Scold the child again
And the story shall be told
Of the wedding of the flesh and soul
And the rose it shall unfold
Forever, amen

On a long blue train
Blowing through the darkness
With a destiny like thunder
In the rain

Jones maintains his threnodic paeans, ever including the enigmatic Maker in his dark but hopeful observations. "Train" has the progressive build-up Al Stewart had carried off so expertly in several works (especially through Eyes of Nostradamus). Then there's "Thas Right" - perky, effervescent, worthy of Taj Mahal, replete with chirpy feel-good backing vocals, a sharp contrast to "Train" (erotic and playful but bubbling and sweetly crafted).

"Mole in the Ground" proves the purposely off-kilter vocals suspected in Jerusalem, starting out rough as nails, struggling to dial into propriety. However, it follows the polished "Ordinary Day" and therein lies the clincher. This one, at least, is constructed that way and clever, very clever. "Almost Satisfied" straddles the line between Jones' two wonts, seemingly an outtake from Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, tightrope walking twixt ensemble and sole troubadour. And speaking of the uber-celeb, Dylan's a front and center reference in "Now It's Up to You," a song containing a particularly killer line: "I used to be a poet/Now I just say what I mean".

"What Called Me to This?" questions both Jones' life and artistry, simultaneously pulling up metaphors particular to both, but anyone listening already knows the answer to the inquiry on the latter: sheer unadulterated talent. In an embarassment of evolving riches, this is his best, with "Long Blue Train" my personal favorite cut in his entire ouevre, an exercise in concurrent sophistication and subtlety.

Salvation was another live capture, with minimal embellishments, recorded at Jones' home studio. The Rite Tite band turned into his touring combo for a couple years, but the problems of splitting gig monies seven ways grew too burdensome and the combo had to adjourn. In the release, though, it takes no more than the first few bars of Life and Death(2003) to again understand that Jones hailed from the era which ushered folk from its Mitch Millery '50's incarnation as a venue for the rather passionless peddling of past masters into a moody resuscitation of why Guthrie, Seeger, and the immortals took to songsmithing in the first place: protest, social comment, cynicism, the anarchistic sentiment to put authority on a hot plate, and a modern re-investment of the antecedent musics which helped inform blues towards its birth: madrigal, lonesome lament, proto-country, and the styles springing from earth and sky as the prairified human spirit met with adamantine truths beyond the Bible, the law books, and sanitized school texts. In other words: real life.

His growly voice was growing ever akin to Knopfler's, still interpolating glints of Zevon, Dylan, and even a very faint Waits. He's accompanied by the stunning sextet, completely dialed in to what the composer's doing, abetting each composition with a streetwise embroidery borrowing from earlier combos but digging deeply into the sinews of Jones' multiplex art. The lead cut "Cum a Live" tells all as organ swells break into an indolently bracing, coffee house, blues-jazz air, a loungily urgent exhortation to wake up and live, carrying richly lamentive side tones in Louise Muller's pulsing violin, who will continue thoughout the release, as often subtle and wistful as lusty and capricious. Mike Barrett matches her with a highly elastic electric guitar, at times squawking like a mischievous gremlin poking its head out in just the right places, capering, dancing, forming striking modes and refrains.

Jones keeps to his standard rucksack of keyboards, acoustic guitar, and harmonica while singing, but that dusty voice and earthy authenticity immediately capture the ear. As usual, not a cut on this CD is wasted, and, when the band steps out for the middle eight, as in "Pull Over," man o man o man! That's precisely what makes sonic omnivores bliss out, nudging cynical dissections aside to wallow in pure pleasure, reluctantly admitting that, yes, life can sometimes be very good indeed.

All of which made Jeremiah (2004) the sharpest turn of his career, a solo exposition absolutely naked in its unwrapping of the depths of Jones' heart, a position undoubted from the very first measures of the lead track, "Prophet in his Prime," laminating the tone for each succeeding tune. The title of course refers to the biblical soothsayer but isn't another blindly laudatory spiritual effort, instead a punishing inspection of the condition in its living days, a wrenchingly surgical drop down the mineshaft of so-called "gifts" from the god-thing. What is it, really, to understand the mad burlesque of human behavior from every act to every consequence, no matter how distant?

Everything about me is mysterious
Don't remember asking for this job
When I got the call, it sounded serious
Who am I for second-guessing God?"

It wasn't that Jones had himself plunged into the midnight of his calling - that would become clear upon the next release - but that he'd shed the extravagances inherent in the task of earlier CD's, stripping off the warm parka, the fuzzy muffler, the flannel shirt, and even the thermal underwear to step back into the glacial extremes of the world, shivering for a time. Folk music is only rarely a romp in the park but neither is it the durance of pain for masochism's sake. It was the genre which, in the 60s, first bellwethered the reason for the changes occurring socially, and it was the music that constantly called the orgy of evolution back home before diving into excess and mutation itself, down the alleys and up the mountains of terra incognita.

You'll hear naught but a single acoustic guitar, a single rack harp, and a single voice through the entire release. Blues was only one of the many parents of rock- folk was another. This, however, was much more than just a mixed marriage, it was a May/December coupling, the two interleaving so easily because blues had been listening to the elder form while contemplating its own manifest. "Still Life," with its bottleneck refrains, demonstrates that secret life quite clearly. Both forms, however, lamented the loneliness of standing out while treading the fringe

Everywhere the silence snickers
Goblins at my door
I'm one part mostly patience
But I'm three parts frozen over
The way the sun goes down
So cold and gold and round
Tells me that I'm on my own once more

"Jeremiah" takes it from there and centers the CD to its fundamental story.

Jeremiah left the buildin'
On his way to Kingdom Come
His wife got the house and children
Jeremiah only got his thumb

They kicked him out in Needles
They had enough of his crazy talk
If he knew God's mind so well, well
He could get out and walk

That's the reward for truth-telling, not to mention the burden of the trad folkie. It was, we may wish to recall amidst the present-day soap opera lull, a tradition of protest, revelation, and self-analysis, the prophet's 9-to-5. Not pretty. Not the advertisement to make one apply for the job. But the "other" is not forgotten and that seems to be what makes the difference. "So Far So Good" is a sprightly and innocent dissertation on the unity of duality, but "To Sleep With You" demonstrates where flesh and spirit meet.

Turn down the lamp
Turn down the bed
In sweet release
Lay down my head

Wrapped safe in
Each other's arms
Set free to fly
Among the stars

Upon this long
And lonesome highway
I call on grace
To see me through
Whatever troubles
May come my way
I lay me down
To sleep with you

Not once is the raw thread of existence forsaken, and the entire CD, never veering far from solitude and barren thoughts, pours into the most unusual turn Jones would ever take, a 20-minute spoken-word allegory-parable, "Abu." A long pause signals the listener that the page is turning as a bare-walls recitation rises, wending its reverse Rubaiyat-ish way.

Jones knows his craft well. The story's pregnant with symbolry, touching in its simplicity, tantalizing in numerous foreshadowings, ultimately a piece of unrhythmed prosody. It's also like a channel change and the shift is abrupt, as windless as a desert plain at noon. Whether it works for each audience depends upon a willingness to enjoy what's essentially two releases in one: a full CD (40 minutes of song) with a long Caedmon spoken bonus. A few mistakes are made in the delivery - this is, after all, not his milieu and side talents must be cultivated to do it impeccably - but the story's hypnotic and thoughtful, forcing the listener to consider the numerous imputations planted.

Jeremiah presaged a change on the one hand, being dedicated to his brother Andy, who would now take over production duties, but it also provided a stepping stone to the next release, Thugs and Lovers (2005), more clearly laying back into his Cockburn-ish side but once more taking up only four elements external to his singing: an inexpensive Alvarez guitar which sounds like a Gibson Dreadnought, two microphones (one for vocals and one for strings) and a Mac G3 to capture it all, producing a fascinating twelve-spot of ruminations on the fragility, individuality, highs, lows, and spirit of the creatures composing the Earth's dominant order. The spiritual prolificities of Jeremiah become tamed against a return to "jes' life" and its daily grind.

The lyrics once more are as suggestive as they are direct, leaving no emotion uninspected, no incident unobserved, speaking poetically through a sieve of experience and acceptance, willing to see matters as they are, angry or content but never misjudging. Jones' guitar playing is masterful, bouncing and complex one song, laconic the next, at times stepping away from the last CD to deliver the sort of Renbourn/Jansch vivacity that complements his work so well. The penseés are wry, insightful, and sympathetically warm even when chronicling the panoply of cold sabotages heir to man and his estate.

Speaking of estates, Jones tells his own story in "Crawlin' Out of Wakefield," a hardscrabble tale of Rhode Island lower-class origins and the struggle to get to a safe zone in a system designed to keep everyone in place. Dysfunctionality's the order of the day, from the rutted East Side all the way over to the champagne and treachery of the glitzy West Heights. It's an Everyman tale almost from the lumpenproles - and, if you didn't live it, you probably know someone who did.

But it's now fall 2006 and the composer has just released his even-dozen-CD, Magical Thinking, and not a moment too soon. With AM & FM as gawdawful as they are, this is a shining star sitting above the grim dark ocean of radio banality. Looking back at you from the liner, the composer's showing the weathered visage of a gent who's been to the edge and looked over, without losing that hard-won existentialist balance, a bit tired, a lot wiser, informed by experience. "A Man Stands Up" fools the listener at first. The staccato drums are instantly evocative of Thin White Rope's "Not Your Fault," immediately reined in as an ethereal synth floats above and Jones' voice and lyrics take over, becoming athemic. The song appeared in its first version on Thugs last year, now a minute longer and aging like a good wine.

In an unusual turn, a re-working of Jeremiah's "Prophet in His Prime" follows, zydeco accordion kicking it off, still sounding, as it had in '04, like it came from Blood on the Tracks. "Wreck the Bed" treads hard on its heels and is the most erotic piece Jones has ever done:

Come back, baby
Come home, honey, I'm blue
All I wanna do is drive you crazy and
Wreck the bed with you

It might be an old four-poster
Might be brass and lead
Might be a futon on the floor
Might be a featherbed

The song carries a slow shuffling beat, languid and thick-blooded, pinging guitar chord-strikes glazing the upper peripheries of the milieu with stars and gauze. A hugely transformed "Us and Them," pulled from Bard, is solo and personal, piano and voice only, studio Tin Pan Alley, somewhat Paul Williams-ish (much more "Old Souls" than Williams' frequently jingly hijinks), a weary paean to pains and pleasures, a guarantee of fidelity. Jones' voice, it becomes obvious here and there, is showing its many nights but the trait is, when it appears, one of increased fragility and expressive incisiveness, the sort of ancillary timbre folk music benefits by.

"That's All Right" is a bounce-step with MaryAnn Price-ish backing vox and rebellious thoughts:

They will poke you with an elbow
They'll punch you with a fist
And if no label sticks to you
They'll swear you don't exist

That's all right
That's all right
It's just the way it should be
That's all right

The music is simultaneously tight and relaxed throughout, affecting the easy grace of a pro who falls into the pocket every time, someone who can well afford the space to let down borders, ushering listeners into the living room studio. "Ezmerelda" is a total surprise, featuring what appears to be strings - uncredited and therefore probably marvelously chosen synth lines - backdropping the moody tune.

One cut, "Sufficient," concerns itself with the twisted pull of advertising images and our enforced psychology of inadequacy. A bopping tempo pulls the spirits up, chronicling the singer's admiration for a woman who's captured his warm regard. The fact that what we are is more than good enough, and that we needn't pursue false Muses, puts the kibosh on sick ABC/NBC/MTV glamour illnesses, and it's about time. After 10 cuts, "The Fire and the Rose" brings the disc to a close, a 15-minute epic that takes it's time extrapolating earthy relativities and the necessity of intimacy and love. Sober and measured, an organ filling the backspaces, it quietly plows back into Dylan territory and the height of the folk movement, gently urging a reminder to rock of one of its roots, a trunkline largely forgotten for much too long.

Magical Thinking is a genuinely wistful return to earlier times and worthier standards. With it, the roles of bard and troubador regain their respect, reminding old and new audiences that some musics tend to more than one human need. Pensive, wistful, at times rollicking, and imbued with the slow senses of thoughtful lament and acceptance the Baby Boom generation is now encountering as their children look curiously in and wonder what it's all about, more is accomplished here than anything the market has seen for quite some time. It should, at long long last, bring JP Jones the smoky spotlight which has shone elsewhere to decidedly lesser result, as well as the critical notice too long absent from his constantly masterful work.

In sum, then, hovering over a very generous catalogue of efforts, when you've grown tired of the scions of the rich, the plainly lesser young offspring of elderday giants, not to mention the posers of the new day, and find yourself longing for the flavor of delight once had when earlier discovering folkies improvidentially missed by the Hit Machine - Dirk Hamilton, Murray McLauchlan, and Bob Sauls, to name but a few - if the alleys full of those whose prodigious artistry never caught fickle Mistress Fate tends to leave you with that pissed-off feeling, then this is all extraordinarily rewarding fare, easily the best genuine modern folk music I've heard in the last 10 years. Do yourself a favor and listen to what the radio will never play.

And a tip o' the chapeau goes to the Rhode Island Progressive League, an artist-activist collective, for the alt-anthology that originally turned me onto this neglected diamond-cutter.

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