Albums I Missed: Jack Rose, Hans Chew

With the year, both musical and otherwise, coming to a close and a year-end list on the way, I’m flitting through the pages of my iTunes and pawing through my CD tower in hopes of rescuing any worthy records that have, for whatever reason, failed to make it onto the blog this year. I’m sure there are more, but for now there are a couple of related and very fine recordings I’d be negligent not to mention, both rather stark and handsome examples of American roots music released in 2010 on the wonderful Thrill Jockey label, but sounding basically as though they could have been recorded and released at any point over the last five decades or more.

All thanks to NPR and the All Songs Considered crowd for both the title and the content of this post; their most recent program was dedicated to “the albums we missed in 2010,” and among their fine selections there was a cut from Luck in the Valley, the final recording by the late guitarist Jack Rose, who died around this time last year, shortly after completing the songs on this album. That I could go so long without slipping this hypnotic, addictive record into the blog isn’t a testament to any dearth in quality to much as a quality of simple, homespun charm that takes a bit to unravel; I’d hate to call it a “grower,” as its twin virtues of clarity and simplicity betray, upon very first listen, a sense of something startling akin to austere truth, but just what makes it such a magical piece of music is not altogether evident at first blush– or at least not very easy to articulate– as Rose’s gifts lie less in his formal mastery as in the spirit with which he enlivens it.

That to say, Rose’s virtuosity as an acoustic guitar player, his open-hearted leadership of his small string ensemble, and his winsome invocation of pre-war folk styles ranging from early blues to parlor songs, bluegrass, and ragtime are all fairly well unimpeachable, but, despite the gritty, first-cut immediacy of this music and the lack of any recognizable flourishes of 21st century recording technology, this isn’t the kind of album that aims at conjuring or defining “authenticity” as some great formal ideal, as so many albums of its ilk to; instead, there is a sense here of being swept along in the music for its own sake, and of employing these fairly ancient forms as modes of self-expression. The set’s all instrumental, but its range of moods and emotions comes through as very well articulated: This is an album about play, about whimsy, about having fun while making music. And, it’s about devotion, about musical qualities intangible, about the strange and sublime way in which Rose’s ringing chords seem to capture the stuff of life in a way that the specificity of words often proves unable to accomodate.

It’s all rather mesmerizing, not just for the instrumental finesse and the beautiful openness of the arrangements, or even for the potent in-studio chemistry of the players, but for the way in which it largely sidesteps the ill-fitting “Americana” label by avoiding self-aware reconstructions of specific times and places, instead moving from the drone of an Indian raga to the unfettered, foot-stomping joy of a bluegrass ramble as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Rose’s studio band is augmented on a couple of tracks by a terrific ragtime pianist by the name of Hans Chew (his real name, as far as I am aware; not a play off of Han and Chewbacca, as has been suggested to me more than once now), whose jaunty, agreeably old-timey work brings an added spirit of whimsy to some of the highlight tracks, but whose full range of gifts aren’t made plain until you hear his excellent outing as a singer, composer, and bandleader, another excellent Thrill Jockey LP called Tennessee and Other Stories. It is basically what it says it is– a collection of short scenes and character sketches, all set in the rural south, drawn in rustic detail that at times feels like the scenery of a Flannery O’Connor story, and– befitting that last comparison, I suppose– focusing on human mortality and the limits of time. Actually, my one complaint about this one is that at times Chew’s lyrical observations stray a bit too close to southern cliche for my tastes; I’m tempted to say that he sometimes finds himself playing the tourist in his own homeland, but he swears in one of the later songs that “all the words and music are really true,” and who am I to disagree?

Regardless, the album is a real joy, and though it begins with a couple of stylistic outliers– the first song is a banjo-picked crawl, the second a barnburning piano rocker with an almost punkish sense of abandon– the bulk of this stuff is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Elton John of Tumbleweed Connection, with, perhaps, a bit of Dr. John thrown in for good measure. Which is to say, it’s smooth, soulful, and spirited stuff, rock and roll built around the piano and loosely inspired by country music tropes, but Chew is nothing if not an intuitive and imaginative writer and performer, seen nowhere better, perhaps, than in his cover of “Long Time Man,” which completely ignores the Tim Rose original in favor of a recasting of Nick Cave’s own gothic pomp, a move that works delightfully well within the context of this idiosyncratic little record.

There is an exquisite sense of craft throughout this record– witness the amazing build-up of “I Would There Was a Train,” which turns inexplicably but remarkably from a sort of country lament into a swelling anthem, or how “Words and Music” cops so many tricks from the 70s rock playbook without ever sounding particularly like anything specific from that era– but the best thing here, I think, is the wonderful “New Cypress Grove Boogie,” a rambling number that takes its sweet time in transforming a traditional blues structure into a Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano rock and roll showcase, a song that’s noteworthy partially for its composition but mostly for how loose and wooly the performance is– not the only, but perhaps the most obvious reminder here that, as with the Jack Rose album, the real beauty of this stuff lies not in whatever value it might have as historical recreation but rather in its in-the-now liveliness, its joy and its spontaneity, which makes it anything but old-fashioned.

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