Peter Watts reviews the imminent new album from North Carolina’s Jake Xerxes Fussell, out next week on Paradise Of Bachelors.
On the cover of Jake Xerxes Fussell’s glorious new record, Out Of Sight, there’s a strange, seemingly abstract charcoal drawing of a circle over a woolly, flat-topped hump. Closer inspection shows it’s an illustration by Fred C Fussell, the singer’s father, a former museum curator and artist who specialises in documenting and recording folk life and craft in the American south. Fred Fussell often draws the Native American burial mounds that speckle the American landscape, and the Out Of Sight cover is one of these, showing the sun – or maybe moon – hovering over a mound, almost touching the silent grave. But while most of the mounds he draws are real places, the one from Out Of Sight never existed. Fred dreamed it up and drew into life.
Like father, like son. Jake Xerxes Fussell is also a student of American folklore. In his case, he seeks out old songs and gives them new life, performing them in feisty arrangements that make these dusty, lost, ancient songs from the Smithsonian’s darkest corners into something alive, vibrant and contemporary. In the case of the rich country blues of “Winnsboro Cotton Mills Blues”, he even had to follow his dad’s lead and partly recreate the work from his imagination as there was no original recording of the song beyond a version by Pete Seeger from 1948.
Seeger is an interesting comparison, as a parallel to Out Of Sight could be The Seeger Sessions by Bruce Springsteen. That had a similar spirit, ensnaring the vital essence of the source material and relocating it in the 21st century without being overly respectful, crass or boring. A fine singer and guitarist, Fussell’s great talent is arrangement and on this third album he works for the first time with a full band, who give the songs depth and texture. His updates are subtle but essential, and give the songs a reviving breath of modernity without dislocating them entirely from their origin. There is a mix of swing and gravitas that isn’t easy to achieve, a combination that makes a song like Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ so miraculous. Here there are nine of them, from drinking songs like ‘Drinking of The Wine’ to the cautionary ‘Michael Was Hearty’, an Irish folksong about a man who married for money not love. Songs are drawn from word of mouth, sheet music and sound archives, with Fussell’s sleevenotes diligently recording provenance.
Fussell is a scholar, but one of the generous sort who takes joy in knowledge and delights in sharing it with others. Out Of Sight is enthusiastic but sincere, whether Fussell is performing ‘The River St Johns’ – a silver-tongued fishmonger’s cry advertising fresh fish, essentially a jingle from the early part of the last century – or ‘The Rainbow Willow’, a murder ballad also known as ‘Locks And Bolts’, dating to the 1700s and here given a cascading neo-psych cadence. He understands why these disparate songs were first created. Whether they were for dancing, selling, celebrating, warning or lamenting, they were born to tell a story, to share a message. It’s that mortal thirst for communication that binds the album together, and with our future so uncertain, it’s reassuring to think that what was once lost can be so lovingly resuscitated, restored and made whole, relevant and human again.
Out Of Sight is released on 7 June. You can preorder a copy here.