Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Review: The Crooked Jades - The Unfortunate Rake, Vol.2

Copper Creek CCCD 2005

Jeff Kazor: guitar, organ, vocals; Lisa Berman: various slide guitars and ukes, vocals; Tom Lucas: various banjos, single quill, vocals; Stephanie Prausnitz: fiddle, vocals; Dave Bamburger: bass; with Richard Buckner: tipple, piano, baritone uke, harmony vocals; Michael Ismerio: fiddle; Stephen Lind: banjo; Dan Lynn: bass; Kevin Sandri: arco bass; Mayne Smith: pedal steel; Adam Tuner: mandolin.

Knoxville Rag/Shady Grove/Unfortunate Rake/Job Job/The Bull and the Bear/False Hearted Lover Blues/Yerba Buena Lament/Love Creek/Yellow Mercury No. 2/Indian Ate A Woodchuck/Tell Her To Come Back Home/Ain’t No Grave/California Blues/Heaven Holds All My Treasures/Johnson Gal/A Broken Time/Love Got in the Grain/Old Man Below/Uncle Rabbit/Warfield/Yellow Murcury No. 1/New Lost Mission Blues/So Many People (So Far From Their Hearts).

If you’ve read the basic info listings above you will have gathered that this fine old-time band from San Francisco (a place like Paris, where you don’t say “France” or “Freedomland” right after) is also an aggregation, a social circle, a conglomerate. Possibly even a religion: “thanks to all the Believers” closes the lovely booklet included in the package. Ain’t nothing wrong with that either—a “believer” by another word is surely a “fan,” and the old-time world is full of those praise be to Allah.

The Jades start off the CD with a rousing big-band setting of “Knoxville Rag”, a tune originating in the ‘20s recording by Taylor, Moore, and Burnett but being further refined by the ‘70s Lexington, VA old-time scene of Ace Weems and the Fat Meat Boys. The tune is nicely crooked as the Jades burn it, with all sorts of instruments sliding in and out and even a little get-quiet section in the middle (an arranging tactic they use off and on throughout the CD). They follow with a no-space cut to a haunting trio of “Shady Grove,” utilizing a baritone uke and Lisa and Stephanie’s fine vocal harmonies. Then comes the title cut, “Unfortunate Rake.” This song, essentially introduced by what precedes it, is a mix of traditional lyrics and original music by the band’s lyricist, Jeff Kazor, and it exemplifies what the Jades are aiming for, over all, in their music. “Rake” is in the long tradition shared by “Streets of Laredo” (or maybe vice versa), in this version with a female tragic heroine, dying of syphilis and mercury poisoning, mercury being the “cure” used in the good old-timey days of yore. It’s a vice-ful city song, a done-wrong song, and in its graphic details escapes the more romantic 19th Century parlor and cowboy traditions. A note reveals that one of the side effects of the old mercury cure was copius salivation—and this detail is lovingly rhymed into the chorus each time round: “my poor head is aching, my sad heart is breaking, my body salivatin’ and I’m bound to die…” The Kazor/Berman harmonies are haunting, and very modern in a rooted sort of way. The effect overall is this interesting mix of realistic tight focus detail that creates almost a surreal effect. The band makes attempts in other ways to focus on these tight vivid details—there are two Kazor originals, “Yellow Mercury No. 2” comes first, a coda to his tragic ballad about the Love Creek Flood of 1982, and then later, “Yellow Mercury No. 1,” a love-separated song which maybe refers yet again to the flood tragedy. In this song there’s a “yellow mercury sky.” The booklet also sports a small mysterious line below the title: “yellow mercury.”

I’m not proposing to decode all this, but only to note that such introspective details suggest an attention to the art of the whole. (I’m reminded of similar touches in Gillian Welch’s “Time the Revelator”—the dress the artist wears in a photo is mirrored in the design of the label, and lyric lines such as “the great emancipator took a bullet in the back of the head” float in an amazing, surreal way from song to song on her CD.) Kazor closes the CD with his “So Many People,” which drops “yellow mercury preacher” into a phrase. The tight focus is also caught in the instrumental musical details, most vividly in the use of mortar & pestle in “New Lost Mission Blues,” an original instrumental by Kazor and Lucas lamenting the “gentrification of the Mission District” of San Francisco. This listening experience is somehow what it might be like to lie paralyzed on a cot in some bamboo stockade in the Congo—riveting and yet somehow sinister and maddening too, sweat and paranoia. And then you have to add what the notes say—the tune is “about” gentrification. Gentrification! Really?? Bummer! Perhaps fortunately, programmatic music has always been a sort of silly idea—as an instrumental “Lost Mission Blues” stands quite on it’s own.

Maybe this gives you some idea of this fine CD. I want to stress that it’s a wonderful, artfully complete project, far and away better than almost anything you’re ever likely to hear on the radio. You will, of course, hear a cut or two on your local NPR affiliate’s roots show (let’s hope!). I am of the opinion that people who want to play “old-time” music in the world we live in have to come to grips with that essential, existential fact. We may love the simplicity of the fiddle and bow, the acoustic thrum of guitar and banjo, even the mortar and pestle and quill whistle, but we can’t just go back there to that simplicity, we can only utilize it here, in the ever present, where there are 8-year-olds carrying AK-47s in Kinshasa, heads rolling down the street in Tel Aviv, pretty widows strapped with explosives executed at close range in Moscow opera houses, Native-American single mothers who may get a mountain named after them in Arizona, but don’t come home to their babies. The Jades really get this in their own very individual way. I’m delighted that they’re making records and creating a following. This one will give you a lot of listening pleasure, and perhaps some discomfort too. This is as it should be.

–Bill Hicks (Note—Bill, like the Crooked Jades, is a Copper Creek recording artist.)
First published in the Old Time Herald

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