The kid can sing and play guitar like he’s 60 years old and had a lifetime of pain, pressure and whiskey, so of course you’re going to pigeonhole him. But to do so places unfair expectations on David Jacobs-Strain and also obscures the fact that his albums are slow-burning wonders that don’t evoke phrases like “wunderkind” or “precocious” so much as “learnedness” and “craftsmanship.” None make sweeping dramatic statements or ostentatious declarations of young blues talent, and none feel fit for consumption by the fickle country blues or backwoods soul dabbler.
No, all 24-year-old Jacobs-Strain has done is quietly amassed an impressive catalog with releases that just get better and better. Liar’s Day, Jacobs-Strain’s latest, is his best and most completely realized yet, and it marks the point where the Portland, Ore. songwriter’s written strengths have caught up to—or at least reached the ballpark of—his extraordinary guitar dexterity. If anything, he’s more assured of his blues and steady in his engagement with ancient sounds and standards, which means he’s less likely to flirt with the more vacuous, generic roots-rock that’s miles below his level of sophistication but at which some of his previous efforts have occasionally hinted.
What’s evolved most about Jacobs-Strain’s songwriting over the years is how he’s refined some of his clunkier coffeehouse poetics into a seen-it-all cynicism in the Richard Thompson vein, with a hint of the gallows humor you’d get from a Chris Smither and the is-he-playing-or-is-he-serious type of animus you’d get from Taj Mahal. The title track is a protest song with a chugging beat and organ filigree to temper its protest song-ness, clearing most of the cheap metaphor hurdles such songs inspire. It’s clear Jacobs-Strain has his eye on moving away from superficial narratives and focusing more on sparer lyrics, rich in applied subtext depending on how they’re strummed and sung. His three apropros cover choices on Liar’s Day, which come from some of blues’ grittiest and darkly wittiest—Robert Johnson (“Traveling Riverside Blues”), Mississippi Fred McDowell (“Write Me a Few Short Lines”) and Walter T. Ryan (“Black Cat at Midnight”)—reflect as much.
Jacobs-Strain’s rhythm section for Liar’s Day is a monster that never announces itself as one. Bassist/producer Kenny Passarelli and drummer Joe Vitale have been around the block more than a few times—they backed Joe Walsh in the ‘70s and ‘80s, for starters—but their practiced contributions are withheld enough to ensure Liar’s Day is a David Jacobs-Strain album, not a product of veteran manufacturing featuring David Jacobs-Strain.
Passarelli, Jacobs-Strain’s mentor, is a bit more assured from behind the boards than in his last effort with Jacobs-Strain, 2004’s Ocean or a Teardrop. He knows when to pour it on; “Rainbow Junkies” has a driving Bo Diddley-beat shuffle, and Jacobs-Strain’s Eastern-influenced, tone-bending flavors—a V.M. Bhatt thing going on, undoubtedly—for its guitar heroics. But by contrast, “Don’t Have a Choice” ratchets up despair not with drama, but with austerity, its only real effect a haunted piano.
Jacobs-Strain’s guitar is still his major selling point. Much of his work has a psychedelic folk quality at times, and his string acrobatics, when uncluttered, can open up a range of sounds and textures. He has remarked in interviews about his interest in the trance-inducing qualities of acoustic blues. He uses his dexterity to explain what that means. But it’s not an overused thing, either. Jacobs-Strain seems aware that if you start creating guitar heroics that divorce themselves from song structure by nature of their formlessness, you crack your own foundation, which is why from him you’re as likely to hear standard 12-bars and spare, folk club strains as you are note-y, speed-picked sheets.
The final song on Liar’s Day is “Old Tennis Shoes,” which gives us embittered aggression masquerading as quiet resignation. Listen to Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen” long enough, and the terror beneath the ostensible narrative begins to emerge. Jacobs-Strain is beginning to walk those same lines: songs with basic surfaces whose emotional subtext goes deeper and darker by the way he fills out his lyrics with the nuances of his singing, the force of his guitar virtuosity, and the fitting choices in his other effects.
Sings the young sir: “I know you babe / you got my heart in your hand / I don’t even care / about your other man … I’ll be waiting for you / right here at the door.”
Play it, pallie. For real.