It’s quite easy to imagine curmudgeonly beard-strokers with names like Gaither and Ellerby on their mountainside front porch grumbling that the only real music is old-time music, and the only old-time music worth listening to are tunes recorded onto 78s. It’s not so easy to imagine young hipsters sipping Red Bull and bobbing their heads to the beat of old-time music piped through the iPod buds in their ears. But, I have a surprise for Gaither and Ellerby—and one for Mr. Joe Bussard—a surprise that will rearrange their tobacco-stained dentures. And I also have a surprise for you, too, Indie-rock Isolde, Jazzhead Joseph, Country Cathy, Soul Bettye, Gospel Gary, and Blues Bartholomew: The Crooked Jades’ World’s on Fire is an old-time album that you, yes you Mr./Ms./Mrs./Dr./Fr./Amb. Music Fanatic, will love. This 2006 release has depth of quality, performance, and passion that makes this release a cross-generational, cross-genre charmer.
The title of opening song “Can’t Stare Down a Mountaineer” seems to acknowledge the staunchness of those Gaither-and-Ellerby “mountain music” diehards. But it will also please them with old-fashioned lyrical content, a frailed banjo and a fiddle bridge. Jennie Benford’s voice engages from the first note, and the song displays her vocal power even in this, a delicate setting. “Sandy Boys” follows, and introduces the soulful voice of bandleader Jeff Kazor, to which Benford pairs delightful harmony. With its plucky dual jaw harps and traditional lyrics about the “waitin’ for the booger boo”, this second song embodies that “Old, Weird America” captured by Harry Smith’s anthology.
Strange? Yes, but beautiful, too. Almost any music fan will become fanatical about the traditional-sounding-but-original tune “Goodbye Trouble the Soul of Man”. Slide guitar accompanies alternating vocal harmonies in a mid-tempo moan that builds to a cathartic climax in which Kazor testifies with the authority of a Pentecostal preacher. Benford’s voice plays a fragile counterpart to Kazor’s sturdy wail. This, friends, is the blues—both mournful and liberating.
The Crooked Jades draw upon the earliest forms of American music—a capella singing, gospel, country blues, folk songs in the traditional canon—but recognize that old songs needn’t remain dusty and dour. A variety of fiddles, slide guitars, ukuleles, banjos, and mandos—sans electricity, of course—are employed to help World’s on Fire achieve a rich, full sound. The album is full of engaging instrumentation that will simultaneously shock and please Mr. iPod RedBull, who may rarely jam to mp3s featuring the frailed banjo ukulele. And though Country Cathy may have purchased the O Brother soundtrack, the rest of her collection is unlikely to include any songs as old as those reincarnated here. Though The Crooked Jakes employ an old-time template, they seek and reach new mountain highs.
Classical music fans, there’s even something here for you. Within the 15 tracks of World’s on Fire, there are five instrumentals, three of which display a certain classical minimalism. “Fork & File” is a banjo duet with, well, a fork and file. It’s instrumentation that is unconventional and yet perfectly sensible—just like the fretless banjo/bowed bass/soprano ukulele (you read that right) arrangement of trad tune “Girl Slipped Down”. “Shirttail Boogie” foregoes the actual bowing of a fiddle. Instead, it is plucked to compliment a banjo ukulele. The remaining instrumentals (“Indian War Whooop/ Pancake Walk” and “Blackberry Blossom”) are both gritty and jazzy, taking a cue from traditional music’s history and its more recent incarnations.
But ultimately, it’s the voices, remarkable leads and harmonies, that capture you from the first listen. Each of The Crooked Jades sing and sing well. You’ll want to grab your earbuds and better absorb the texture their voices create. “Old Cow Died” is a driving fiddle tune, enriched by low-end harmonies, the call and response: “ain’t that a pity!” Deceptively simple-sounding original “Heaven’s Gonna Be My Home” is a stunning handclap- and mandolin-propelled gospel number made even more heavenly by creatively-placed children’s harmonies.
Certainly, World’s on Fire is full of diverse surprises, but nothing can prepare the listener for the final track, from which the album takes its name. Goosebump-inducing, haunting, and apocalyptic, “World’s on Fire” creates an atmosphere worthy of its title. Emerging from a multi-layered recording of whispered prayers in an unknown language, a plankwalk bass gives way to marching handclaps and the incessant background bass vocal: “Judgment/ Judgment/ Judgment…” Jennie Benford takes the lead, enunciating the song’s title with increasing alacrity, then calling Gabriel whole-heartedly while a slide guitar proclaims the building apocalypse. The pounding resonance of the word “Judgment” creates a gospel atmosphere, although a distinctly ominous one. Benford’s soaring proclamations of “sinners rise!” paired with fire-and-brimstone descriptions of “stars fall/moon bleeds/elements melting” could be read with multilayered meaning, especially considered in contrast to those initial, “foreign,” intonations. This interpretation therefore seems to cast a burning light on that destructive duality between what is called ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ what is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’—and just who is to make that judgment in an increasingly oppositional world. The song is also a reminder, like the album as a whole, that old songs can be born again, and that they can appeal to a broad new generation of listeners.