One of the small but wonderful ironies that has grown out of the increasingly digital age of sound — as the internet has both widened our awareness of music and watered it down — is that it has made way for a number of virtuoso acoustic performers to gain a wider audience. It doesn’t hurt either that indie superstars like M. Ward and Thurston Moore have helped revitalize the legacy of John Fahey, and consequently the careers of his followers, merely by mentioning his name.
But while this crop of players seems endlessly gifted, led by the likes of Ben Chasny and James Blackshaw, none can outshine Jack Rose. Jack Rose is acoustic music, and since he split from the great experimental noise band Pelt, Rose’s solo output has been stunning. What separates him from the others is his ability to reach out with his music. Chasny and Blackshaw are brilliant, to be sure. Chasny, though, has slowly but surely moved towards an obscuring fog of distortion, while Blackshaw whips piano and guitar up into a dust storm he never emerges from.
Jack Rose, on the other hand, wanted you to join in. His stuff — especially Kensington Blues and Opium Musick — can knock you on your ass with its sheer musicianship, but it never sounds like an exercise, like some bookish composition. Without ever singing a word, Jack Rose could communicate in a way few musicians can.
So when he passed away last December, suddenly and all too young at 38, it wasn’t just bad news — it was a gut shot. How could this man, so vital and energized on record, be gone so soon? And what were lovers of acoustic music to do without him around to remind us how human it could sound? The answer to that is, in a lot of ways, still unclear. They are questions that can be put off, because before he passed on, Rose completed what will sadly be his last album, Luck in the Valley.
But let’s do this: Let’s decide to let the album exist on its own. Let’s not call this the last word, or hang Rose’s passing over this music like a thick cloud bank. Luck in the Valley is not a heartbreaking farewell. It’s not even a bittersweet goodbye. This album is a joyful burst of life, his most complete and encompassing invitation to us to come on in, to be a part of this pulsing music until it takes us over. Finally it is proof that Jack Rose, as a musical force, will be with us for a long time to come.
Along with a handful of players — including his former Pelt-mate Mike Gangloff and brilliant guitar and banjo work from guys like Glenn Jones and Isaak Howell — Rose uses Luck in the Valley to continue to explore the pre-war folk that’s influenced recent albums like Jack Rose and the Black Twig Pickers. Like those albums, this disc contains only live takes with no overdubs whatsoever, and each song has a brilliant clarity as a result, a space somehow between the music and the record that makes room for us to interact with the songs.
It puts you right in the tack-piano thick of “When Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops”, and don’t be surprised when your foot involuntarily thumps along with the infectious porch stomp. The hollow banjo jangle of Rose’s version of “West Coast Blues” feels like it’s coming at you from all sides. Even at the disc’s most down low, on the group’s shuffling take on W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”, the music doesn’t turn in on itself. Rose’s pure joy in creating these sounds, in mining the past for some new nugget of music, comes across in every note.
Rose does strike out on his own some here, particularly on the extended solo track “Tree in the Valley”, and the cascading notes that run effortlessly off his guitar can put you into a trance. It does drift away from the tight melodies and thrumming stomp of other tracks, but it’s still very much alive. Jack Rose’s greatest asset as a musician was avoiding any cold, academic feel in his work. Though Rose himself studied music endlessly and incorporated much of what he learned into his own stuff, his music wasn’t an exercise in scholarship. Nevermind learning what this music is about — just dig in and feel it. The knowledge can come later.
Luck in the Valley, along with Kensington Blues, is the best example of Rose’s considerable talents. This stuff courses with life, and reveals hidden gems of sound with each listen. While the reality that Jack Rose is gone is, surely, a very real sadness, there’s nothing sad about this music. This is an album that should be admired for years to come not as a final document, but as a brilliant and unflinchingly joyful piece of music. And I can’t think of a better way to honor Jack Rose than to treat it as such.