[15 September 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Glenn Jones considers himself a student of the “Takoma school”, the group of acoustic guitar players that learned from the genius of John Fahey. This movement is sometimes referred to as American Primitive, but Takoma school is more fitting for a skilled player like Jones. Schools are places where we learn knowledge and skills, but then we have to go out and apply those skills. They don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re often subject to our own interpretations and unique applications.
So while players like Fahey and Robbie Basho and modern players like Jack Rose and Ben Chasny will surely come to mind, you’re unlikely to mistake The Wanting for belonging to anyone but Glenn Jones. His first album for the Thrill Jockey label is a brilliant set of compositions, instrumentals that focus on Jones’ uncanny and intricate guitar (and, for the first time, banjo) playing. The playing here is impeccable, brilliant in an almost inhuman way. The notes come fast and in smooth, complex rolls of sound. It’s the kind of playing that makes you think three hands are at work.
But it isn’t the intricacy and technical acumen of The Wanting that makes Glenn Jones’ new album so striking. There are plenty of brilliant guitar players out there, but Glenn Jones distinguishes himself by evoking deep feeling with his playing. This isn’t noodling or wanking, not intricacy for intricacy’s sake. These songs all establish their own feel, build their own atmosphere, and deliver it with an impressive yet subtle force.
Fittingly, the titles often deal in places and artifacts, each destination with its own share of memories to tote around, each piece of a life lived soaked in meaning. Opener “A Snapshot of Mom, Scotland 1957” is spacious, even cautious in the note phrasings at first. Jones is easing his way into the past, feeling around for the important bits, the parts that still reside in some nearly forgotten corner of the mind. The song never bursts to live, but it finds solid ground and blooms in its humble way. The notes tumble down, climb and tumble again. That time long gone is found again, and you can feel the distance beautifully in Jones’ careful playing. It’s a slight but key contrast to the more percussive, quick roll of notes on “The Great Pacific Northwest”. You can hear the low end of the guitar work its way in as the riffs tighten into punchy, melodic structures. There are striking flourishes, but the power of the song comes in its sturdy construction. If the opener is awash in dreams of the past, this second track is immediate and vibrant.
The album moves between these two poles, building on the layers of feeling between them. “My Charlotte Blue Notebook” is spacious and haunting, the low notes buzz while the high notes shimmer. “Even To Win Is to Fall”, on the other hand, rattles with its slide work, ambling near-drunk through its riffs. “Of Its Own Kind” is a sunburst of pastoral folk, an expansive and wandering track that pulls out of the overcast of those middle songs and comes out into the light. It’s as beautiful a composition as the album has to offer, endlessly tuneful but full of complex note runs that will catch you off guard at every turn.
The banjo tunes here—Jones is relatively new to the banjo—are interesting counterpoints. While the guitar work gives away his years of dedication to the instrument, the banjo pieces are short and sweet. His playing is plenty solid, but there’s a more sudden inspiration that comes across in these. If the structures of the others feel carefully planned and executed, this feels like a late-night burst of creativity. They change up the texture of the album well, but more than that they offer a moment where Jones’ fascination with sound trumps his playing. You can feel him getting comfortable in these song, whereas in the other ones it is us who work to settle in.
The most fascinating piece on The Wanting, though, is the 17-plus minute closer, “The Orca Grand Cement Factory at Victorville”. The song is a collaboration with drummer Chris Corsano, and it is a strange, massive sound to end the album on. It’s a chaotic turn for sure, with Corsano’s playing often taking on a Tony Williams-esque mania. All the control of previous songs seems to unwind, all that memory and bittersweet joy finally bursting forth in a final ringing burst of noise. Jones lets the notes bleed together a bit here, things clutter up just a bit, and the results are sometimes claustrophobic, sometimes brilliantly unraveled, but always beautiful.
Here, and all over The Wanting, Glenn Jones gets us to stop hearing the music—the notes lose their individual pluck and become part of this bigger movement—and just feel it. No, not just, forget that part, because what you feel here is not easily earned, but it is lasting and resonant. This is music that makes its own space, creates its own landscape, and then invites you in. It may be intricate, it may be experimental, but it is never unapproachable. At the end of the record, you can hear Jones mumble to Corsano, “What do you think?” And if he asked me, I’d say nothing. I’d tell him it didn’t make its way to my head, but it delivered a hell of a shot to the gut.