I hit the wall. I spent the past decade – when I wasn’t raising kids, fixing an old house, or trying to find just enough other work to cover the mortgage – and almost all of my free time, as well as many paid hours, listening to music. I know, it may sound like a dream job, and to be fair, most of the time it was; but eventually some cracks began to show and I got tired. The deadlines were too tight, there wasn’t enough time to listen to anything properly before writing a review. I started to notice the clichés that were creeping into my work, just to keep everything rolling on schedule.
Some time late last summer – it’s hard to pin down exactly when – I noticed that something had changed. Assignments that I was looking forward to, turned out to be a drag when I finally had to sit down and write them. Almost everything I listened to sounded flat and uninspired. I felt like I’d heard it all before. I’d put myself into a corner where the only things I could stand listening to were old Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett records, or perhaps a little light Indian classical music. Anything else was like nails on the chalkboard. I rarely sang or played the guitar and things I had always done with music blaring in the background, I did silently. It’s hard to say why. I wasn’t depressed or losing interest in anything else in life. Maybe it was that I was always assigned to write about classic rock and world music artists. Don’t get me wrong, I still love Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Bob Marley, and The Grateful Dead, but I’d written about each of them so many times that I thought I had ran out of things to say. So, I took a much-needed break and focused on other things.
A few weeks ago, I was going on a car trip and decided to look through the huge stack of CDs I’d received in the last six months, and take some of them with me to see if any of them grabbed me. As I looked through all the titles, I realized that some of them were really very good and deserved to be written about. I also started to think that I had been working in an industry where an album released last month was old news already. Everything in the media is now timed to the minute of the hour of the day, and I just don’t think, move or write like that. So, you’ve probably read about all the albums I’ll be covering in the next couple of weeks already. But, I’m suggesting that that doesn’t matter. American Beauty and Ladies of the Canyon are as good an album as they ever were, and I think you’ll like the album I write about below just as much five years from now as I do today. So, here we are: slow and late.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
If ever there was an album that I hesitated to open, it was this one. That has nothing to do with Jayme Stone, who is one of Canada’s – if not the world’s – greatest string players and arrangers. It was the Alan Lomax thing. I’d been regularly bombarded by Lomax tributes in recent years, from Mickey Hart’s excellent book Songcatchers to Tangle Eye’s remixes, to say nothing of the flood compilations of Alan Lomax jailhouse and Southern work songs. Whatever the reasons, I was burnt out after writing so many field-recording stories. It’s not the fault of the material. The songs are, without a doubt, amongst the most vital ever written and communicate an alternate perspective of the world’s history of forced and voluntary migrations. It’s heavy material, full of intimations of power, greed and injustice. They’re songs of dignity, confession, renewal and mortal horror. They’re songs of joy, forgiveness and eternal love. In short, Lomax collected, classified and collaborated and compiled thousands of vital, hurting, uplifting songs that we’d probably have lost if he hadn’t made the effort and for that I’m eternally grateful. Great songs, but I had dozens of versions of all of them sung by everyone from Leadbelly to Willie Nelson. I didn’t think I really cared if I heard anyone sing "Goodbye, Old Paint" or "Shenandoah" again, ever, unless it was with a group of friends around a campfire.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be a comfortable sensation to draw a line under something, put a lid on it and say to yourself that you’re ready to move on. But, I started to realize that maybe I’d given up on music prematurely and every song on Stone's album showed me just how wrong this feeling was. From the first track, "Lazy John", I was mesmerized and completely caught by the beauty of the music Stone and his excellent band were playing. They sang like they’d just discovered the songs this morning, as if they’d written them themselves. They made these ancient songs sound so fresh. They sang like they don’t know what the next lyric was going to be. That’s the magic of every performance on this album. The way they’re played is so sincere and understated that I found it impossible not to fall into the rhythm and spell of every lyric and melody. I could really ‘hear’ these songs again as songs and not musicological ‘finds.’ I could hear their stories. More than anything else, the jubilant approach of Jayme Stone and his band – that features fabulous players such as Tim O’Brien, Brittany Haas, Margaret Glaspy, and Moira Smiley – give the songs back to us. Stripped of their myths, critical hubris, and significance, under Stone’s loving presentation, "Another Man Done Gone", "Soul Of A Man", and so many other songs sound vibrant and alive again. And, it is important, perhaps, to mention that this is no small feat. To make these tunes, with their sentiments so couched in antiquated and symbolic language, with their dreams of promised lands, pastures of plenty, safe places to lay your burden down while yearning to hear the sound of prayer, work so well is nothing short of miraculous.
In terms of sheer joy, listen-ability and musical fun, Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project is the best album I’ve heard in quite some time. And, finally, musicological nerds shouldn’t despair – Stone has included some wonderful liner notes about Lomax, the geneology of the songs and his own approach to recording them.
Sorry to be so slow and late telling you about this one.
Coming up next: Piers Faccini and Vincent Segal – Songs of Time Lost and Mary Gauthier – Trouble and Love