Jake Xerxes Fussell's quirky and exuberant, William Tyler-produced self-titled debut of Southern folk and blues songs turned out to be one of my favourite albums of 2015; it was the most fun I'd had listening to traditional music in a while, and it was beautiful.
So it was a bit of a surprise, then, to hear Fussell redirect his current in a more subdued, sombre — bleak even — direction on What in the Natural World, his deeper, more complex sophomore album. Here, optimism is always married with pathos and/or danger; and likewise, pathos tends to carry a barely hidden dose of humour.
It's an album of questions, or folk/blues koans, that stir things up and illuminate, but tend to have multiple, if any, answers. "All the hounds, I do believe / Have been killed / Ain't ya thrilled, jump for joy," goes the first one, on a bluesy reworking of the title song off Duke Ellington's 1941 "Revu-sical." Of course, we're left reminded of the hounds as much as of emancipation.
Fussell then rolls into a bluesy love song, "Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?" with the delightfully unexpected earthy rhyme, "Well, wake up, woman, take your big leg off of mine." It sounds, in part (and probably not coincidentally) like Bob Dylan's "Buckets of Rain," but with a revving electric guitar line that's more Chuck Berry and great brushwork from drummer Nathan Bowles (Steve Gunn). (There are three Nathans on the record: Bowles, steel guitarist Nathan Golub and acoustic guitarist Nathan Salsburg, as well as bassist Casey Toll). It's clear by two songs in that the once-jovial and approachable-sounding Fussell has become a warm but better, more nuanced songwriter.
Another thing that sets What in the Natural World apart from its predecessor is its inclusion of more contemporary material: Helen Cockram's "Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine," written in 1979, is only 38 years old; "Bells of Rhymney" is from a Welch poem by Idris Davies (1938) but another version of it was popularized by the Byrds (Fussell's take on it is the shambliest-sounding song on the album, a bit like Wilco and Billy Bragg's Woody Guthrie covers can be); meanwhile "St. Brendan's Isle," a Celtic romp that grows more and more wonderfully absurd, is a Jimmy Driftwood "tall tale" from 1960.
Yet it's on the traditional songs from the '20s and '30s that Fussell and his band create the most gorgeous alchemy. You need only play their versions back-to-back with the source materials (Fussell includes sources in the liner notes) to see how far they've taken it, and how they've handled the songs with care. "Furniture Man," with its descending guitar and swooping steel guitar lines, is a devastating standout and an excellent entry point to the album. A story of dispossession that rings true to our modern fears, its humour just makes it all the more devastating: "He took everything from an earthenware plate, from a bed-tick to a frying pan," sings Fussell. "And if ever there was a devil who'd been born without horns / Well, he must've been a furniture man."
Meanwhile, "Canyoneers" (by Loy Clingman, 1956) begs the most haunting question: "What's in a man to make him thirst for the kind of life he knows is cursed?" Fussell answers it with another question: "Do you ever wonder what you would do when all the chips were down?" Men throw themselves into precarious situations when they already have nothing to lose, perhaps.
The album ends beautifully (but tragically, of course) with a familiar murder ballad, "Lowe Bonnie," sung with Joan Shelley. Yet even here, there are new details (white chocolate tea) and hints of humour to be found ("I think I feel my own heart's blood / A-dropping on my feet" are Lowe Bonnie's final words).
Fussell has created a world of supernatural, natural and mundane forces on this record that gets better and better with each listen. (Paradise of Bachelors)