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Jason McNiff

April Cruel

(Fledg'ling; US: 11 Oct 2011; UK: 11 Oct 2011)

Is April not the cruelest month?

There’s more than a whiff of early Dylan on Jason McNiff. Perhaps its impossible for any guitarist singer songwriter to avoid the influence. But McNiff performs his self-penned ballads with the tropes of the past as blocks with which to build. He doesn’t copy the past. He just doesn’t seem worried when he’s mining a familiar vein of folk history.


The importance of authenticity in folk has always been an important part of the musical discussion. So what does it mean when you have a Bradford, England-born singer guitarist of Polish and Irish descent performing Americana roots style music? Darned if I know, I just know it sounds good. The music is by turns melodic and pretty, heartfelt without being cloying and filled with clean pickin’. The earnest lyrics express yearnings for other people, other places and other times, but seem situated right in the present moment: the moment one decides to howl at the moon or leave the seaside town for home.


Of course there are love songs and ones about the human condition. McNiff pays attention to the importance of experiencing the world with and through others. He writes poetically about shared connections and often expresses himself with the “we” pronoun. This makes everything personal and communal at the same time. He presumes we share his values and that his observations resonate in all of us.


While McNiff wrote and produced the album, he employs a coterie of notable plays that include Graham Knight on piano, bass, and organ, Francesco Moneti on violin and mandolin, and Lizzie O’Connor on mandolin and banjo. The instrument blend to create a foggy and woodsy atmosphere. The disc has a natural and organic sound that complements its themes on our innate sensibilities. We love yet fear pain caused by love. We live and fear the end life in death, etc….


The track “April Cruel” refers to T.S. Eliot’s famous poetic line about April being the cruelest month. For Eliot, the change of season takes one out of one’s lovely internal solitude and brings one into the fertile and carnal rites of Spring. McNiff reinforces that message by recalling the words of an earlier poet as he quotes Walt Whitman’s line about “when lilacs last in dooryard bloom’d.” Whitman’s poem was about death. McNiff cites Whitman and recalls Eliot as a way of expressing his distaste for this time of year “I don’t even like this season” because it brings forth the memory of a girl he loved who hurt him badly.


McNiff quotes from popular source as well. One can hear references to other folk pop artists like Paul Simon and John Denver on such songs as “Bus of Tears”, and there are many other examples. But McNiff does something original and quite lovely with the material. Good folk can weave from the traditional fabrics and add one’s own idiosyncratic way of seeing he world in a seamless tapestry if the creator knows how to mix and match the materials. Much of the fun of listening to this record is to listen to where McNiff’s rambling will take you. He invokes past and present, fictional and real places, and what he thinks and how others see the world in a lively musical repartee.  When you get done playing the disc, you are glad for the ride and tempted to go back on again real soon.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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