Glenn Jones: Fleeting

Fleeting creates a geography of sound, making these notes from guitar and banjo feel like the creaks and groans of an old house.
Glenn Jones
Thrill Jockey

When you hear “Flower Turned Inside-Out”, the opening tracks to Glenn Jones’s latest record, Fleeting, you might be inclined to think you’ve heard this before. The track is firmly in the American Primitive tradition, spinning notes into a pastoral whirl that is both tuneful and challenging, bright and yet bittersweet. But as the song moves on, and the record that follows it, it becomes clear that any notion that Jones stands in the shadow of John Fahey is misguided. Fleeting achieves something each Jones record has worked toward, to create a geography of sound, to make these notes from guitar and banjo feel like the creaks and groans of an old house, to make you picture the dust pluming off each plucked string, to see the motes drifting through sunlight pouring through a nearby window.

This sense of geography comes from Jones’s own fascination with place. He recorded this album in a house in Mount Holly, New Jersey overlooking Rancocas Creek. Jones and engineer Laura Baird don’t try to hide the space from these songs. You can almost hear the music echoing off hardwood floors or rising up into spacious ceilings. Whether the recording space is expansive, it feels that way on Fleeting. “In Durance Vile”, which casts a fascinating shadow after the playful bursts of “Flower Turned Inside-Out”, seems to revel in the stillness of the space around it. Jones carefully builds his phrasings here, sometimes dipping into flamenco, but mostly staying in American folk traditions but making them his own. His shift between finger-picked notes and ringing chords make it sound as if two instruments are playing at the same time, and the tempo shifts between careful, tip-toeing movements, and a more deliberate thump.

Jones has always shifted between guitar and banjo on record, but on Fleeting the two feel intermeshed. The muted banjo on “Cleo Awake” and “Cleo Asleep” both play on the same melody, but there’s a charming quiet to the tunes, both a tribute to a friend’s newborn and a song that could both lull the child sweetly to sleep and perhaps not wake her. The album rarely sticks to one emotion, though. “Mother’s Day” is similarly quiet, but also feels far more melancholy. “Close to the Ground” builds on the tension of hard-plucked notes. It always seems on the verge of a crescendo that never comes, adding a tension to the record that doesn’t appear elsewhere.

Fleeting also provides more overt surprises. “Spokane River Falls”, a tune at the heart of this album’s sense of place, allows Jones to make the banjo sound like falling water, each drop a note, each cluster tangled together like a brief torrent. Jones deals in his own invented tunings and the use of partial capos. There is much innovation and invention behind these songs. These kinds of singular approaches feel like they’re in the background. They’re not fussy attempts at seeming progressive, but just paths to sounds that appeal widely. “Spokane River Falls”, though, shifts on a more obvious experiment for Jones. The banjo eventually yields to the all-encompassing sound of the water itself, of the falls cascading down. It’s a jarring moment, but an effective one, where Jones yields to the space he is paying tribute to.

He also is aware of his space in the musical world, and pays tribute to his influences. Mostly notably, he honors Robbie Basho on “Portrait of Basho as a Young Dragon”. It’s a high point in the record, where Jones is smart enough to avoid trying to sound like Basho. He doesn’t build up those towering, dense ragas. Instead, he hints at Basho’s style — the way some heavy-hit notes buzz, for example — while penning his own letter to Basho in his own voice, his own style. It is fittingly the album’s longest song, one that takes up the most space, and one that Basho would no doubt admire. It’s steady pace and careful, tumble-down phrasings boomerang between the earthen and the ethereal, between the access road and the astral plane. And that’s where Fleeting lives, in between those spaces, making its own mark on seemingly well-worn paths. Jones is perhaps our most emotive guitarist, and the bittersweet sense of time passing, of lives gone and lives still being lived, runs through this record. Those are the things that are fleeting, but the album seems to acknowledge those up front so it can get to the way we move through and around those things, the way we connect with the spaces and people that surround us, the feelings behind it all. In other words, the lasting stuff.

RATING 8 / 10