Glenn Jones is best-known for his work with Cul De Sac, a Boston-based ensemble that makes consistently interesting records by incorporating a number of eclectic influences into their diverse musical stew. Perhaps unfairly, they are often labeled as a post-rock band, and although their music is primarily instrumental and borrows ideas from a number of genres, it sits apart from nearly all of what is known under that signifier these days, being far less formulaic and much more diverse both stylistically and texturally. Jones has been a prime mover in the Cul De Sac camp since day one, over 15 years ago. Although his acoustic guitar playing occasionally surfaces in Cul De Sac, it’s been much more of an electric ride, despite his early years spent playing exclusively acoustic guitar (his bio states that he didn’t actually “go electric” until sometime in the early 80’s, when he was already 29 years old). However, in 2004 he took the opportunity to return to his roots with the excellent
This is the Wind That Blows it Out, his solo debut. While nodding to both John Fahey and Robbie Basho (two men Jones cultivated friendships with and both of whose work he obviously admires), he also established his own unique voice, crafting a fine album of high-quality guitar music that is as strong on composition as it is on technique.
Against Which the Sea Continually Beats follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, even upping the ante by including a few more slide guitar pieces (four of the eleven tracks here), which helps to add a little variety to the fingerpicked 6 and 12-string workouts that carry the majority of the weight. To Jones’ credit, each track manages to reflect a unique mood, so that despite the relatively simple instrumental palette, the album stays fresh and interesting throughout. This is largely due to his ability to craft pieces which are as nuanced as they are virtuosic, the notes themselves (and also the spaces in between them) helping to slowly unleash the fascinating stories lurking beneath the songs. These are warm and magical tales, rich with feeling and deep in resonance, their essence pulled from realms both human and cosmic and threaded together with the joy and sadness of life and death.
The album is bookended by a pair of short slide guitar works, ‘Island 1’ and ‘Island 2’, named in tribute to the island in Massachusetts where the album was recorded. They serve as fitting introductory and closing numbers, sparse and simple yet resonant and evocative. Compared to those brief tunes, a couple of the longer pieces on the album are downright epic journeys, especially the wonderful ‘David and the Phoenix’, which takes its name from one of Jones’ favorite children’s stories. It progresses through an extended series of motifs which work magic via the juxtaposition of melody and dissonance, hinting at the fantastic tale behind the song. Another highlight is ‘Freedom Raga’, on which the influence of Indian ragas is indeed present, both in the vibrant low-string drone that saturates several portions of this lengthy piece and also in the gently bent notes scattered throughout various phrases. Again, Jones displays remarkable technical facility, making even extraordinarily fast arpeggios and quickly-picked flurries of complexly syncopated notes sound effortless.
With nearly forty years of guitar-playing experience under his belt, it’s safe to say that Jones is by now a masterful player, yet it’s never a case of all flash and no substance… not by any means. He succeeds in conveying heartfelt emotions on each track, but especially on a few of the slower pieces, including his moving tribute ‘The Teething Necklace (For John Fahey)’. It’s an obvious homage, carefully crafted to include several wonderful Fahey-isms without ever resorting to blatant mimicry. Jones’ style is less steeped in the blues idiom than Fahey’s was, and as such, his playing displays a more modern sounding harmonic approach that is informed by a wider spectrum of influences. ‘Heartbreak Hill’ is a stirring tribute to another deceased friend, a 12-string meditation that aims to reflect the generous and good-natured soul of the man it was written for. It succeeds admirably in this respect, and is a beautiful, life-affirming piece of music. Although there are many sublime moments nestled within this wonderful disc, this one seems to stand out amongst the others.
Topping off this fine release are Jones’ wonderful liner notes, which cover everything from his personal anecdotes about the songs and the specific guitars and tunings he used to play each of them, to a special section on making partial capos (those which only cover 3 or 4 strings instead of all 6). The way he writes about these things adds an extra element of personalization to a CD of already intimate music, one which can easily be enjoyed by devotees of instrumental guitar music as well as people who have never listened to a single solo guitar record before. It’s that kind of album… mysterious, charming, and gorgeous music that’s easy to love, even if it might be difficult to play. And hey, if you’re really inclined to try, the tunings are all there in the liner notes. Just don’t expect to get there without a lot of hard work. Glenn Jones makes it sound so simple, but that’s exactly what the best of them are able to do.
John Fahey – The Yellow Princess
Robbie Basho – The Falconer’s Arm Vol. 1
Leo Kottke – 6 and 12 String Guitar