The New York Times has dubbed Jackie Green “the Prince of Americana”. Greene’s similarities to the Purple One are rather numerous: both are tiny and adorable, if somewhat unlikely, heartthrobs whose music is an unclassifiable amalgam of numerous styles. Oh yeah, they’re both talented as hell too.
At age 27, Giving Up the Ghost is Jackie Greene’s fifth album, giving him more experience than musicians decades his senior. Nevertheless, he’s assembled an all-star supporting cast, including the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh (Greene actually played guitar for Lesh’s tour back in 2007), and Dave Hidalgo (Los Lobos), who shows up to lend a hand on guitar and accordion.
The album covers a variety of musical genres, most potently on “Don’t Let the Devil Take Your Mind”, Greene’s self-proclaimed “disco-gospel” number. Now, these are two things that in theory sound horrible when paired, but in practice, they combine like bourbon and mint to produce something unexpectedly irresistible: “Well there’s no one man among us / Who is safe from the Siren’s call / Temptation’s like a crooked finger / Calling for us all”. It’s a little bit Debbie Harry, a little bit Robert Johnson, and a whole lot of awesome, all wrapped up in a four-minute package. Oh, and Dave Hidalgo throws in a face-melting guitar solo just to up the Awesome Quotient some more.
“Ball and Chain” has Greene sounding like Mick Jagger when he was at the top of his game way back when the earth was still cooling (the “game”, of course, being “ripping off classic blues artists”). “Prayer for Spanish Harlem” almost qualifies as shoegaze, thanks to fuzzy guitars and whispered vocals. For “Uphill Mountain”, Greene switches genres yet again to arrive at a folksy guitar-and-harmonica midtempo song that cites American legends Cassius Clay, John Henry, and blues musician Big Joe Turner while dispensing non-advice like “Better stand tall if you’re gonna stand it all / And if you’re gonna fall, well you might as well fall”.
One might think that all this genre-hopping would create a record that’s disjointed, but Giving Up the Ghost is actually anything but. Jackie Greene is talented enough to pull it off and make it all look absolutely effortless as he transitions from style to style, era to era.
The first single and opening track off of the album, “Shaken”, is comparatively one of the record’s weaker cuts, lyrically, but the dreamy, lush arrangement rescues it. Still, it’s a quality song on a record full of quality songs, even if it doesn’t seem to be quite up to the standard Greene has set on his other work.
Right now, Jackie Greene is still relatively unknown outside his hometown of Sacramento, despite his inclusion with big name alt-country artists like Robert Earl Keen and Mary Gauthier on sampler This is Americana Vol. 2 back in 2005. You can put him on a mix tape and still get indie street cred. But his star is quickly on the rise, and if there’s any justice in the world, after the release of Giving Up the Ghost and the subsequent national tour, he’ll be a household name. With his unique blend of country, rock & roll, soul, and blues, Greene has developed a musical style that is the epitome of Americana, and we can only wait to see just where he goes from here.