The word primitive evokes thoughts of crudely hewn instruments and blunt, inarticulate fumbling that struggles to bring cohesion from chaos, the tentative first steps of an unmannered mind awkwardly scrawling portraits on the wall of a dark cave. It doesn’t seem to fit with John Fahey’s American Primitive movement, whose acolytes revel in fluid, cascading melodies and the wispy delicacies of finger-plucked acoustic guitar, but there is some commonality — the music isn’t an atavistic exercise or affected tour through the past but rather a search for the definitions of expression. The largely instrumental music lacks the symbolic articulation of language, but replaces it with a much more fundamental medium, the sweeping, highly emotive virtuoso playing which tugs at the simplest, most honest instincts that human beings have. It casts “primitive” not as a depreciated status relative to the rigid, tightly formed music and interactions of today, but as an unspoiled, pure means of communicating feeling without artifice.
Guitarist Glenn Jones has long been a follower of Fahey’s Takoma sound, and after years of dabbling with the American Primitive sound in the midst of his experimental post-rock group Cul de Sac as well as occasional collaborations with the man himself, Jones finally released a full album of his solo guitar work in 2004. This is the Wind that Blows It Out was a remarkable accomplishment, instantly proving Jones’ capabilities and assuring fans of this music that in a post-Fahey world, there’s still enough vitality and promise left in the style to carry it many years into the future.
Against Which the Sea Continually Beats provides more steel-string meditations in the vein of his first album, albeit with a significant change in attitude. This is the Wind that Blows It Out was built around several dark, minor key works, most notably the nine-minute “Sphinx Unto Curious Men”, which epitomized the dusky sense of spookiness that made the album so intriguing. On the new album, Jones makes a point to engage in somewhat brighter, less foreboding arrangements. The songs also seem to keep with the imagery of the album’s title, with a relentless persistence that surges and recedes before flowing back over itself in a flurry of notes that seem to fade and rise simultaneously.
The majestic “David and the Phoenix” kicks things into gear after the muted introduction of “Island”, and it pays tribute to one of Jones’ favorite children’s books by overwhelming the listener with an unstoppable cascade of colorful lines that weave together imperceptibly. Isolating one of the melodic paths and following it will inevitably lead to another as they twirl around like a Möbius strip, and new motifs emerge from the din without warning, creating a fantastic atmosphere that almost certainly does justice to the imaginative story it is based on. The more grounded “Little Dog’s Day” follows, and though it is easier to grasp it doesn’t disappoint. Jones’ found his inspiration here from the work of Elizabeth Cotton and Etta Baker, and their graceful, mannered playing shines through like a ray of warm, spring sunlight.
“Heartbreak Hill”, dedicated to the late Steve Burton, a close friend of Jones, is named after the most grueling stretch of road along the Boston Marathon, a steep rise that serves as a devastating filter beyond which many amateur and untrained runners are physically and mentally unable to pass. Burton, an accomplished runner, had his ashes spread over the hill, and the arrangement by Jones isn’t one of struggle or resignation, but instead seems to evoke the tingling of excitement one has when they reach the crest and realize they have the strength to continue, the glowing aura produced by the shimmer of sweat on skin, and the monolithic din of the crowd cheering the runners on as they pass by. It’s a triumphant, encouraging song that dominates a challenging setting.
Against Which the Sea Continually Beats comes off as a far more intimate record than Jones’ first album, not hiding in the dramatic imagined landscapes but instead centered on truly personal relationships and genuine feelings. While it might be nice to have a signature epic like “Sphinx Unto Curious Men”, the songs on Against Which the Sea Continually Beats are successful as well-crafted vignettes, drawing listeners into a pleasant, powerful world where the strongest bonds and emotions cannot fully be captured by mere words.