Maybe it’s just me, but I always thought that the musical style known as American Primitive wasn’t really all that primitive. Even when legendary guitarists like John Fahey were dragging slides around to commemorate steamboats gwine round dem bends, there were many progressively-minded winks and smiles hidden between the notes. There was an undercurrent to this kind of folk guitar music that suggested “hey, it’s only primitive if you say it is”. And by the time Fahey was enlisted to collaborate with experimental indie-rockers (I guess?) Cul de Sac for The Epiphany of Glenn Jones, all involved were already light years beyond the lazy river fingerstyle guitar passed down from your Appalaichan grandpappy. After Cul de Sac’s dissolution, Glenn Jones did a subtle about-face back to these steel string storytelling roots. But as Jones’s solo career progressed, so once again did his sense of the progressive. Starting with 2009’s Barbecue Bob in Fishtown, Jones started tinkering with the banjo in a refreshingly non-bluegrass manner. For 2011’s The Wanting, his gaze turned to multiple sources of inspiration, including jazz, classical and Gaelic stylings alongside the Americana. Now with My Garden State, the blending of styles is even more finely ground. It’s anything but primitive. And you can make the case that this form of Americana has transcended its Celtic roots. So with My Garden State, where are we? Because it sure as hell ain’t New Jersey.
Actually, Jones composed all of these songs in New Jersey while caring for his mother. How these songs relate to his experiences of growing up, leaving, and then returning to the Garden State are his stories alone; hence the My in the albums title. The album opens and closes with the sound of wind chimes, each track lasting for only half a minute. These seem pretty worthless on the surface, but if you stop to think about what we associate with wind chimes — natural forces, an instrument requiring no human touch, a quaint feeling of returning home, mild irritation — Jones is just taking us home with him. Sure, it’s a gimmicky way to boost the number of tracks from eight to ten, but it’s also an eerily appropriately way to open the door for My Garden State. The Wanting may be a tough act to follow, but My Garden State is a special album that requires no previous footprints to show the way. Like ivy, it just grows and sprawls of its own free will.
Glenn Jones is joined by two sisters on two of the tracks, Laura and Meg Baird, who essentially play with him in unison. “Across the Tappan Zee” has Laura Baird join in on banjo, and for a highly syncopated style, they lock in pretty well. Meg Baird jumps in on guitar towards the end of the eight-minute “Going Back to East Montgomery”. Again, the rhythm holds together well, but I can’t shake the feeling that one of them has an out-of-tune upper register string. On “Alcouer Gardens” Jones’s rubato is accompanied by a thunderstorm (the night I actually focused hard on listening to the track, a thunderstorm happened to come through my neck of the woods). The slow unraveling of the rolling thunder is a striking backdrop, one that would reek of pretension elsewhere. It would be easy to say that “Alcouer Gardens”, “Going Back to East Montgomery” or the near eight-minute “Like a Sick Eagle Looking at the Sky” are centerpieces for the whole package. But for me, the title tracks sums things up nicely. On it, Jones, returns to the banjo for a most unlikely minor key jig with a delicate melody and little else to clutter it up. If what goes around comes around, then the Garden State should be remembered for spawning this 2:32 ditty rather than a roving gang of beach thugs in love with their own fitness routines.
Some may see this as a minor step back from The Wanting. Those less inclined towards Americana will continue to wish that Glenn Jones never disbanded Cul de Sac. But when the listener steps back to take in the overall picture, they’ll see that the man is continuing to carve out his own unique language in a dangerously homogeneous genre. He may not be doing it in a linear fashion or in a way that makes perfect sense to anyone else, but I think this is a musician in whom we can invest a great amount of trust.