Page one of the sports page this morning is all about how other countries are starting to kick American butt in basketball. We invented the game—and in 1972 the Soviets cheated us out of the gold medal that was rightfully ours—but the world has now caught up. Greece kicked our ass, apparently, because they love hoops enough to play it really well.
Ditto for American music sometimes. Prepare Me Well is the U.S. debut of slide guitarist and singer Jeff Lang, an Australian steeped in the American mojo of blues and country—and whose music will turn your head round and round until you wonder if we still do it as well as our imitators.
A compilation of tracks from ten years of albums released in Australia, Prepare Me Well kicks a whole variety of asses. From traditional roots country music that evokes Ireland as much as the Appalachians (the opener, “The Save”) to strongly plugged-in workouts that combine Dylan with high voltage slide mastery (“Too Easy to Kill”), this is a statement that should be hard to ignore. Guitar fans will take note because Mr. Lang can RIP; alt-country fans will sense a new talent who understands how tradition merges with indie-rock; and the Starbucks crowd should find a guy who deeply understands how to blend atmosphere and substance (“Mr. God”). Me—I’m just plain old knocked-out.
The risk with compilation albums, of course, is a kind of musical schizophrenia—a sense that the disc doesn’t hold together and imprint itself in a singular way. That is noted here, but also overcome. For all the diversity of sounds on Prepare Me Well, there is a useful through-line—Mr. Lang’s serious talent on guitar. On a tune like “Bateman’s Boy”, the spotlight is plainly on acoustic bottleneck playing as it accompanies Mr. Lang’s pleasant, breathy storytelling. One tune later on “Gina”, Mr. Lang is powering a ballad with hollow-bodied electric juice and sweet pedal-steel color. “Everything is Still” finds him coloring with National Guitar and steel. All of it sounds authentic, rootsy, awesome.
Is it somewhat jarring that, on “Everything is Still”, the Australian sings, “Fredericksburg’s not too far away / Heading down I-95”? A little, but this is no more odd than other tunes that seem to reference the big, rough continent on which he was born in a U.S. language. Most of the tunes are about the ultimate American topic: movement and road. And today that subject might as well belong to anyone, certainly to an up-and-comer who has traveled all over opening for heroes like Albert Collins.
In the end, of course, our great American music transcends nationality—a fact proven by the mere existence of Jeff Lang. And as you listen to a brilliant song like “Rain on Troy”, you feel the power of our blues and folk music wash back over us after having bounced off a genuine talent. “Rain on Troy” sounds like its own terrific amalgam—a folk-ish texture carrying a plaintive melody but with a rhythm feel from Celtic music and guitar textures of the American south. The words—a lament for being in middle of nowhere without someone who matters—show literary skill and a keen nose for what works in a song: “There a rose growing through my chest / My roots have been ripped by the race I’ve run”.
Prepare Me Well veers toward anonymity at times—in a pleasant acoustic folkiness that requires that you pay attention. You put it on in the background, while you’re making dinner, while you entertain folks over Pinot Grigio, you’re going to miss it. I encourage you: turn it up even though it’s mostly a quiet album. Let the strings really bend around your ear. Let Mr. Lang’s voice—reedy but full of rough-edged character—carry through the whole house. You got to listen, but it will be worth it.
A little bit Chris Whitley, and dash of Jeff Buckley, plenty of Robert Johnson and maybe Jerry Douglas—all that’s gone into Jeff Lang. But what comes out—as with any smart and talented artist—is something wholly his own. Now, a decade or so into an impressive career, here it is for a U.S. audience.
Come and get it, then we’ll see what’s next.