One of the happiest surprises to manifest itself in vinyl form on this recently passed Record Store Day is the split LP featuring the guitar talents of Glenn Jones and the grand Old Time shadings of Virginia’s own Black Twig Pickers in collaboration with Piedmont-style country blues specialist Charlie Parr. This lovingly crafted disc sheds a wealth of illumination upon the deep allure of various North American root forms that continue to provide valuable insight and inspiration for all sorts of contemporary players, essentially the spark that’s spurred an inexhaustible fire, and the only reason I can formulate as to why the Jones/Twig LP survived the consumer plunder of Record Store Day is simply lack of name recognition. So let me get right down to rectifying that situation. Glenn Jones burst onto the underground music scene way back in 1989 as a member of the amazing New England avant-garage group Cul de Sac. That band majestically weaved an assortment of disparate out-rock influences (Pere Ubu, Can, Neu!, Girls, Tim Buckley) into a discerning and uncompromising blend that stretched out over the landscape of nine albums, including two that were collabs with such formidable figures as the late John Fahey and Can’s Damo Suzuki. This bit of background is especially noteworthy in the case of Fahey, for his groundbreaking and frequently dazzling American Primitive guitar work is a huge influence on Jones’ own exceptional guitar style, and the vast yawp of Fahey’s Takoma Records roster (Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho. Peter Lang, Max Ochs, Harry Taussig) has been the center of affairs for Jones’ upstart solo work. While there are numerous worthy disciples to the American Primitive tradition picking and plundering all over the globe, Steffen Basho-Junghans, James Blackshaw and Sir Richard Bishop among them, the loss of Jack Rose to a heart attack in 2009 sort of left this micro movement without a clear leader. By the evidence on Jones’ side of this split, it’s looking like he’s stepping up to the head of the class. Titled EVEN TO WIN IS TO FAIL, its mixture of guitar and banjo instrumentals finds him simultaneously deep in the throes of American Primitive science and at the forefront of the style’s endless possibilities, extending them well beyond the present. The opener “Anchor Chain Blues” is so indebted to the gorgeous luminosity of Fahey’s early work that it would easily be mistaken for the maestro himself in a blindfold test. If this was the full extent of Jones’ exploration here, he’d be valued as a particularly inspired and adept copyist but not much more. Thankfully, this powerful channeling of Fahey’s exquisite gifts is instead a launching pad/ground base for some rich and multifaceted string construction. “The Great Pacific Northwest” begins as a continuation of the more contemplative side of Fahey’s youngish mode, a gesture that seems far less frequent in the new generation of American Primitive players, but by the end of the tune Jones has asserted himself into the full on post-John Hurt zone that makes all those Vanguard-era Fahey recordings so eternally rewarding. It’s on track three that the proceedings take an unlikely turn, landing smack dab in the wide open territory of a beautifully nude banjo. My first thought upon hearing this sly twist spanned all the way back to BANJO, Billy Faier’s sweet and neglected 1973 Takoma solo joint, but upon reflection this connection is only accurate in spirit. Faier’s crisp, ramshackle, rollicking style was very much about dexterity and Jones’ ruminations on the instrument are far more about mood. In this case one of sadness and melancholy. The track’s title, “On the Massachusetts Virginia Border” is I think indicative of Jones’ relationship with the Richmond-born Jack Rose and possibly serves as a tribute to that departed titans’ legacy. If I’m correct on these counts the tune’s contemplative air is an unmitigated success. And if I’m wrong, well, Jones’ artistry is strong enough to withstand the misinterpretation. Track four provides Jones’ side of the disc with its title, and it takes another fine detour, this time into realm of the steel string guitar. It’s here where Jones shines at his most original, still clearly American Primitive in outlook but reaching into largely uncharted waters. He does conjure up thoughts of Ry Cooder at his least commercially minded, but this is undoubtedly an associative leap on my part. Where many steel string new jacks are very much under the spell of the gigantic power of Son House’s stuff (the ‘60s-era work, to put a fine point on it), Jones instead utilizes the instrument for far more foreboding and personal ends. Side one’s final track “Tinka Marie” finds the banjo back in his sturdy hands, and once again it’s very much about texture. Easily the most relaxed and pretty tune of the bunch, it’s a fabulous denouement and summation of all that came before and points to the vast number of cards Jones has up his sleeve. He has a record set for release soon on Thrill Jockey and a joint DVD on deck from Strange Attractors Audio House, and my interest is seriously peaked. EASTMONT SYRUP, the Black Twig Pickers side of the disc finds us squarely in the middle of string band sensibilities, and while their seven tracks unwind that’s a fine place to be. Opener “Forky Deer” is loaded with much welcome fiddle action, but it’s the following cut, “Warming By the Devil’s Fire” that finds them really loosening up and melding with guest Parr, the whole crew throwing down a shithot batch of wound-up hunch that’s worthy of the ghost of Blind Willie McTell. The fiddle returns for the excellent if brief “Falls of Richmond” and that’s the mode that continues through the more upbeat “Horseshoe”. “Barnswallow” switches to an excellent solo turn for banjo, and “Wednesday Night Waltz” is an achy, forlorn lament, with loads of keening bow scraping to spare. Only on the final track “Death of Jerry Damron” do we get vocals courtesy of Parr, and his singing is in fine, mournful form. If it appears that I’m giving short shrift to the Twigs and Parr in comparison to Jones’ side of the disc, well that’s not at all the case. It’s just that the rich Old Time tradition of the Pickers is in far less need of deep description than the vast solo complexity of Jones. And when it comes to string band style, I’ll admit that my love of the genre finds me desiring my mustard uncut. With the exception of The New Lost City Ramblers and especially The Unholy Modal Rounders (one of my all time favorite bands of any stripe), I must fess up that any attempts at stylistic hybridization leave me chilly to downright cold. So the rough, raw textures of The Black Twig Pickers are right up my personal alley. Call me a purist if you must, but the front porch wrangling and wiggling of EASTMONT SYRUP is in no need of updating or sophistication. Just grab a jar, take a deep snort and huff. Then huff again. For it’s all right here.
In regards to the ‘80s rock underground, by this late date, only the stodgiest of moldy figs still obstinately refuse to acknowledge the importance and greatness of such bands as Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma and Minutemen. When it comes to the thornier presence of Big Black however, many minds are still deeply opposed to their entry in the hallowed halls of historical rock esteem. Frankly, I find this to be a very deep drag, but it’s hard to deny that the root of the unfortunate circumstance comes directly from the prickly personality of the band’s main honcho Steve Albini. Out of all the folks that populated indie rock Mk 1, Albini was easily the most confrontational, and his acerbic, abrasive attitude was matched with music that possessed an uncompromising, blunt causticity. It’s debatable just how well most of his youthful nihilism has dated, but that’s the risk of growing up in public. Albini eschewed politics and penned lyrics that were alternately obsessed with tabloid violence, lurid sexual themes, misogyny and general misanthropy, all while sauntering over the scene with the demeanor of a contemptuous, bookish smart aleck. Many people hated it (him), while others ate the whole thing up like it was a gourmet dessert. Now many urbane observers from the aboveground music press took a detached stance toward the guy’s persona, instead faulting him for crafting music of inferior quality, but in my mind that’s largely just a bunch of phony baloney, a tactic masking their disdain for his hard-line stance. For while I’ve never really had any guff with Albini’s attitude/beliefs, and in fact agree with certain aspects (particularly regarding commerce and art), it was still relatively easy to identify much of his swagger as shtick back when Big Black was a thriving entity. And if there is one thing that skinny bespectacled dude knows inside and out and top to bottom, it’s music. Complaining that his stuff is one dimensional or lacks subtlety simply makes no sense to me. Is a jackhammer one dimensional? Sure, but it gets the job done. Is a pile driver subtle? No, and by design. Long after most of the world had turned their back on the form, Big Black grabbed the dripping vitriol that was punk rock at its best, combined it with the icy alienation of post-punk before it went all soft at the center and then crossed it with that severe outlook that throbbed like the sordid contents of an extremely pulpy true crime magazine on bad blotter and rotgut liquor. It certainly did take a while for Albini to perfect the project (by his own admittance), his early EPs (LUNGS, BULLDOZER) being largely solo affairs that while aggressive and worthy were less heavy than gnawingly post-punk. The classic Big Black lineup was the trio of Dave Riley on bass, Santiago Durango on guitar and Albini on guitar and vocals enlisting the trusty thump and thwack of a stressed out Roland drum machine, and while many consider 1986’s ATOMIZER album to be their definitive statement (it does include their two best tunes), I feel their overall strongest disc was the last one, 1988’s SONGS ABOUT FUCKING. For starters, SONGS was the first Big Black full length to spread the songic quality more equitably over both sides of the vinyl. ATOMIZER’s first side is an absolute doozy; the second not so much. While it’s certainly arguable, I’m tempted to credit SONGS’ overall best cut as the second side’s acidic sex murder chronicle “Fish Fry”. The deck is still slightly stacked in Side One’s favor, but that’s to be expected with music of this style, pounding fast and hard right out of the gate. Another reason I value SONGS so highly is how unlikely roots start to peak through; for one example the scorching cover of Kraftwerk’s “The Model”, for another the stylistic similarity to The Ramones on “L Dopa”, and for one more “Columbian Necktie”, which underneath its caterwauling thunder and distortion is ultimately a surf tune. A further example of SONGS superiority for me exists in the cut “Precious Thing”. If ATOMIZER’s “Kerosene” personified the stultifying atmosphere of ‘80s small town boredom, standing as a blistering update on Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”, then “Precious Thing” details emotional obsession with the explicit desperation that feels like the bastard child of the Delta Blues at its most lyrically extreme. In addition; “Bad Penny” is a first person tale of a passively sadistic life ruining lout, “Kasimir S. Pulaski Day” contains much of the band’s occasional abrasive funkiness and “Pavement Saw” holds some of Albini’s most direct and least affected vocals. Overall, SONGS ABOUT FUCKING is a smashing success, and if it’s not as great as DAMAGED, DAYDREAM NATION, VS., or DOUBLE NICKLES ON THE DIME, well it’s not behind by much. Is it dated? Yeah, somewhat. But I don’t really think that’s a fault. I do think Albini’s current band Shellac, along with his vast credits as engineer will ultimately vindicate his legacy. But what Big Black lacked in maturity it more than made up for with youthful vigor. They were a thrilling, highly influential band, and it’s high time they got their due.