[5 August 2014]
With the opening strains of “Mockingbird”, listeners know they are in for a ride worth taking all the way down Jonah Tolchin’s Clover Lane. Recorded over the course of a mere four days in Nashville with producer Marvin Etzioni and some of the best players around, the set harkens back to a simpler time in a way that efforts by the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons don’t. This is foot-stomping, ragged and raw, Mississippi Delta music—but for, and very much of, the 21st century. That’s because it was created by a 21-year-old Jersey boy. Go figure.
Alternating vibes between campfire singalong and barn dance, Tolchin stomps a lot while traversing Clover Lane, but never hollers. Tolchin bends and blends genres even as he recycles and repurposes styles to fit whatever he—and his songs—need them to be. It’s a talent only achieved through the intentional study of traditions combined with the instinctual ability to explore. Throughout it all, he calls upon the influence and inspiration of old-school pickers like Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, and Doc Watson.
Thematically, the paradoxes that litter Clover Lane run all the way through, from style to substance. At once gritty and smooth, Tolchin sings of both hybrid cars and train whistles. In his updated take on the “Mockingbird” lullaby motif, mama isn’t going to buy you a billy goat to replace your broken looking glass. Instead, “daddy gonna buy you a .45. If that .45 don’t go, daddy gonna buy you a .44”.” Tolchin draws from that same populist ethos in other tunes, too, sketching out stories of a string engagement ring in “Diamond Mind” and a disdain for excess in “Mansion in Hollywood”.
Keeping pace on the production side, Etzioni fills out each frame with sounds that feel both meticulously thought-through and casually rendered. There’s “Hey Baby Blues” with its swampy shuffle, scratchy steel, and dirty sax sitting one track away from “Atlantic Winds”, which proudly boasts a Cajun-tainted fiddle alongside the indelible bluster of a river-born harmonica and the irresistible twang of a honky tonk guitar lick. But, then two cuts later, the subtlety of “Low Life” is best appreciated in headphones so the distinct guitar accents that Etzioni tucked way off in the corner of each ear can be both heard and felt. Skip forward another two marks and “21st Century Girl” paints with an entirely different, albeit thoroughly complementary and pitch-perfect, palette.
Taking directions from Bourbon Street up to Beale Street and on to Maxwell Street, Jonah Tolchin’s Clover Lane deserves its rightful place on the map as a truly remarkable Americana/blues record.