As we brace ourselves for this week’s ersatz presidential pomp, rank and rancorous politics, and righteous protests and marches, please allow us to ask one philosophical question no pundit but Jake Xerxes Fussell is asking: “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?” Today NPR Music posed, and premiered, this first Natural Question from Jake’s forthcoming album What in the Natural World, with Laura Snapes writing that it “marks a move into more existential questions.” It’s “a hair over six minutes long, but that drone could sustain it for hours… running unbroken and buoyant as a shoal of fish darting downriver, and counterbalancing his open-hearted picking. It feels like a hopeful question about the possibility of surprise, and whether human nature can change. Fussell’s burly, winking voice is made for storytelling.”
If Fussell’s entrancing What in the Natural World feels several shades darker, and unsettlingly funnier, than his William Tyler-produced debut (now on sale), you need only look around at our current national predicament for clues as to why. Since his debut release, Jake has played around the country, opening for Wilco (this winter!), dueting with Tyler, and touring with Mt. Moriah, Nathan Bowles, and Daniel Bachman … and the territory he’s traversed, for many of our fellow citizens, doesn’t brook much hope.
This time around Fussell has sourced his repertoire from beyond his primary Southeastern U.S. foraging grounds, including songs from the Southwest (“Canyoneers“) and even Wales (“Bells of Rhymney.”) He encounters monsters, literal and figurative, everywhere in this landscape of loss and longing. Unlike his debut, the majority of these songs are not nominally traditional. Several are attributed to specific artists, both canonical (Duke Ellington) and obscure (Helen Cockram), and all are recast in vibrant, assured recordings that elide genres and dissolve the false binaries of tradition and innovation, folk and modern, old and new.
Throughout, Fussell poses his Natural Questions in the form of transmogrified folk/blues koans. These nine elliptical riddles, spare but sturdy, driven by Jake’s limpid guitar and understated singing, both absorb and reflect the conditions of their listeners, refusing to offer easy answers.
Recorded by Jason Meagher (Steve Gunn, Michael Chapman) in Orange Co., New York, and by Nick Petersen (Mt. Moriah) in Orange Co., North Carolina, What in the Natural World features art by iconic Chicago Imagist painter Roger Brown and contributions from three notable Nathans—Bowles (Steve Gunn), Salsburg (Joan Shelley, Alan Lomax Archive), and Golub (Mountain Goats)—as well as Joan Shelley and Casey Toll (Mt. Moriah).
The deluxe LP package boasts 150g virgin vinyl, heavy-duty 24pt matte jacket with detailed song notes and sources, color labels, and a high-res download code for the entire album. The CD edition features a substantial matte gatefold jacket and LP replica artwork. Contingent on manufacturing timelines, pre-orders should ship about a week in advance of the March 31, 2017 release date.
RIYL: Michael Hurley, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Dave Van Ronk, Jim Dickinson, Raccoon Records, Joan Shelley, Nathan Bowles, Nathan Salsburg, William Tyler, Daniel Bachman, Wilco.
N.B. To celebrate What in the Natural World, Jake’s s/t debut will be on sale for $15 LP/$10 CD/$5 MP3/$23 LP+CD+MP3 until the new record releases on March 31.
Price: from $13.00
Old Price: from $9.00
Price: from $5.00
ACCLAIM FOR JAKE XERXES FUSSELL
The professor you always wished you had, the human jukebox, the guitar player and singer who makes any band that he’s in better. He’s a southern scholar and gentleman in the tradition of Jim Dickinson, George Mitchell, & Les Blank. He’s a Dave Van Ronk for SEC country. – William Tyler
A singular combination of pedigree, experience, education, and talent. – The Oxford American
Beautifully loose arrangements of playful, resilient songs. – Uncut
Music that takes us to a deep place in the American spirit. – Art Rosenbaum
JAKE XERXES FUSSELL ON TOUR
Feb 22 – The Hideout, Chicago
Feb 23 – Chicago Theater, Chicago, with Wilco
Feb 24 – Clovene (Nathan Salsburg’s place), Louisville, KY
March 21 & 22 – Beacon Theatre NYC, with Wilco
You can peruse all PoB-related tour dates here.
Jake himself reflects on on the origin of “Peaches,” Jimmy Lee Williams, and Southwest Georgia blues drone:
As a kid I was fortunate enough to know the writer and documentarian George Mitchell, who’s perhaps most well known for his extensive recordings of rural blues musicians. George and my dad worked together in the 70s and 80s doing folklore work in lower Georgia and Alabama, and by proximity I was able to meet and learn songs from some of the traditional musicians they were recording, like Precious Bryant (of Talbotton, GA) and Albert Macon (of Society Hill, AL), and many others. One of the blues musicians George recorded in the early 80s was a guy from Poulan, Georgia, named Jimmy Lee Williams. Unfortunately I never met him but I heard George’s recordings of him early on and always liked them. ‘Peaches’ stuck with me since the first time I heard it…something about the absurdity of the lyrics but also this sort of serene, rhythmic approach to guitar playing. A lot of the blues guitar playing from southwest Georgia has this serene, droning quality. I don’t know how to explain it, really, but it’s very syncopated and can be quite powerful if you can learn how to get it going. Honestly I think there’s an American Indian influence back in there somewhere…some of these melodic changes remind me of southeastern stomp dance chanting..but that’s another story altogether. Anyway, I can’t really say what the song is about. I stay fairly faithful to Williams’ lyrics, and my guess is that his lyrics were probably a composite of floating verses from here and there. That’s the way songs work, at least in my experience: some lyrics go away while others remain, and some only go away for a little while and come back later. Maybe sometimes you’re left with just a little fragment of something that used to be a long, nuanced narrative ballad. But that fragment becomes its own thing and takes on new meaning. The same thing can happen with certain musical elements. Fiddle tunes are like that. Songs develop lives of their own and this one is no exception.