[2 August 2011]
Judging by the topics of the songs on Diana Jones’ latest release, you would think she’d be a drag to be with. The Appalachian-style musician writes songs and sings about the death of a child, the death of a lover, the grueling effects of poverty, the job of a funeral singer, coal mine accidents, and such. The one cover song out of the dozen tracks is her clomping rendition of the spiritual “Motherless Children”, about the plight of a lonesome orphan.
Yet High Atmosphere perversely functions as a happy album. Jones’s plain and straightforward take on the material invites one to sing along and share the pain. Misery loves company, and nothing gives solace as much as giving solace. The simple acoustic string arrangements allow Jones to sing in a conversational manner, as if she is just giving you the local news and weather reports. She invites you to listen closely and delivers the bad news with a deadpan smile.
So when she tells you the devil has moved to town and married her sweet and trusting sister, you think, well at least he’s got a job and doesn’t beat her. Or when she sings that she doesn’t want to be forgotten by her family after being sent to prison, you get the impression that she’ll be okay. Everybody’s got troubles, and if you do not now, you will sooner or later. It’s inevitable, but troubles too will pass. Sit a spell and listen to the soothing sounds of the simple human voice mixed with the harmonious plaints of the guitar, fiddle, banjo, piano, cello, and mandolin. Music is a small, good thing.
It’s not that Jones wallows in sorrow, but she understands the knowledge brought on by a “Poor Heart” cannot be easily gained. She might wish there was “A Drug for This” ache, but she does not underestimate the power of hurt to elevate one’s spirit. It’s unhappiness that brings us together, not love. That essence pervades every song.
Musically, Jones is accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Old Crow Medicine Show’s Keith Secor, who co-produced the record with her, and other talented players. Country singer Jim Lauderdale sings with her on three cuts. Their two voices create an eerie resonance as they both have twangy cricks in their vocals. The strain mimics the discomfort caused by things like not having enough money to live, being incarcerated, and the death of a family member.
Okay, so while one would not recommend playing this disc at parties (unless one wanted to clear the guests out), the latent cheeriness of the depressing material rivals the blues as good time music. Consider the case of “Motherless Children”. Guitarists Steve Miller and Eric Clapton have recorded popular versions of the traditional song and turned it into celebratory fare by accentuating the instrumental accompaniment. Jones stresses the lyrics about “hard times”, something to which we all can relate. The song comes off as a communal purging rather than a personal lament.
Jones’s belief in a “High Atmosphere” or heaven above is just the other side of the coin. Human existence may be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, as the Bible says, but that may be the very same things that give it meaning and purpose.