Only a musician with a deep reverence for traditional folk music could have made Good and Green Again, the rich and rewarding fourth album from folk interpreter Jake Xerxes Fussell.
“Interpreter” is the operative word, speaking to the ingenious balance Fussell strikes in his work. On the one hand, he’s no mere preservationist: though indebted to existing songs, Fussell’s are often exercises in pastiche. He’ll crib melodies from several standards and patch them together into one, weave in his own instrumental passages, tweak lyrics here and there to suit his needs.
On the other hand, he’s hardly a pure songwriter, either. Good and Green Again is his first album to feature any original tunes, and three of these four originals are instrumentals (the other, the haunting closer “Washington,” consists of just 14 words—and given that it appropriates those lyrics from the text stitched onto an early 20th century rug, it’s up for debate whether it can even be classified as “original.”) It’s a neat trick Fussell pulls off, relying so deeply on his source material without letting it constrain him.
Good and Green Again strikes this balance as artfully as any of his previous records. Lyrically and musically, however, it’s his most economical effort yet. Opener “Love Farewell,” Fussell’s take on a folk standard of the same name, is clearly about lovers rent apart by war. But we don’t get much in the way of rising action, climax, or even concrete characters. The song deals in imagistic flashes (“Cannons roar, drums a-beating,” “Drink up the liquor boys, turn the glasses over.”) It’s more like a painting than a story.
The gorgeous highlight “Carriebelle” operates with a similar logic, anchored by a descending acoustic guitar figure that echoes the plaintive lyrics and creates a sense of stasis. That said, the song does feature one of the more maximalist arrangements here: rolling brass, palm-muted staccato electric guitar that mingles beautifully with its acoustic counterpart. With the help of talented session players, as well as renowned producer James Elkington, Fussell ties everything together beautifully.
In light of how substantial its lyrics feel, Good and Green Again has surprisingly few of them. With the exception of “The Golden Willow Tree,” a nine-minute strophic seafaring tale birthed from an Anglo-American ballad, Fussell avoids narrative in the traditional sense. This is most evident in “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down,” a spare acoustic whisper of a song, the album’s most naked expression of loss. Between two repeated verses with scarcely more lyrical content than the title, Fussell places the couplet: “Oh darling, my darling round here / Come and look me in the eye / The best of friends must fall out and fight / So why not you and I?”, adding a personal dimension to the song’s evocations of natural decay.
Fussell follows up “Rolling Mills” with the happiest cut here, the instrumental “What Did the Hen Duck Say to the Drake?” Bright fiddle and acoustic guitar converse over crystalline percussive chimes, barely there but essential to the track’s playful mood. The album’s other two instrumentals, “Frolic” and “In Florida,” sound almost as lighthearted. More importantly, they are evenly spaced throughout the album, so it never teeters under the weight of its melancholy. There’s plenty of sadness here, to be sure, but there’s also hope, tenderness and a deep concern for craft. That’s something worth celebrating.
Label: Paradise of Bachelors
Casey Burke is a published music journalist and creative writer with a wide-ranging taste in music. His work has appeared in Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Brainchild Literary & Arts Magazine, and blogs for WTJU and Plaze Music.