Fingerstyle American primitive guitar appears to be a genre full of competent artists but precious few giants. John Fahey, Robbie Basho, Michael Hedges, and Jack Rose have all passed on. Leo Kottke doesn’t seem interested in recording anymore, and the likes of Edward Gerhard and Don Ross work their butts off just to maintain steady work. The underappreciated genre’s main crown appears to be up for grabs, and Glenn Jones is just as good a contender for it as any of the previously mentioned names.
Ever since the dissolution of his post-rock band Cul de Sac, Jones has been making a steady stream of solo albums with little more than his acoustic guitars and the occasional banjo. Glenn Jones hasn’t set out to re-invent the wheel with each album. Instead, he’s slowly unloading each new song idea that comes to him amid the sea of alternate tunings and modified capo positions. The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar is his latest, and it is quite good — not because it is transformative or revelatory, but because it is good music.
That needs a bit of elaboration, doesn’t it? Well, for starters, the title track is a delightful number bouncing that recalls the cryptic yet fanciful aesthetic of early John Fahey both in style and in name. “The Giant Who Ate Himself”, a drawing of a frog playing the guitar, a slide that alternates the tune between major key sauntering and minor key moping — it’s all oddly poetic. “From Frederick to Fredericksburg” also blends the best of both worlds. On the one hand is the sitting-on-a-tree-stump rubato, and on the other hand is the strolling down the road Travis picking that gives the song its momentum. “The Was and the Is” pits an easy ascending melody to a skeletal backdrop. You can almost sing the title’s words over the main melodic figure as you picture yourself looking out the window at nothing on a [pick your favorite season] afternoon.
On My Garden State, Glenn Jones couldn’t help but mess around with a set of wind chimes for the album’s introduction and conclusion. On The Giant Who Ate Himself, he throws a very brief set of sleigh bells at the end of “A Different Kind of Christmas Carol” and cobbles together a collection of outdoor sounds and something that sounds like a rain stick (I could be wrong) for the abstract, impressionistic “River in the Sky”. Aided by longtime recording engineer Laura Baird and producer Matthew Azevado, who collaborated with Jones on the live album Waterworks, the guitarist gets to chase a variety of little sounds that remind the listener that, no, it doesn’t have to be all guitars all of the time.
If we had to pin one particular piece to be the centerpiece for The Giant Who Ate Himself, my money is on the lengthy 12-string workout titled “The Last Passenger Pigeon”. Again, Glenn Jones gives himself the assignment to tell a steel-string story with a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is built from quiet strumming, the sound of someone getting a feel for the lay of the land. As chord patterns take shape, rubato slowly turns to a moderate tempo. Then he’s off. By the time he’s a third of the way into the piece, Jones is making a terrific racket with all of the string buzz his instrument can muster.
There is so much soul and majesty in a track like “The Last Passenger Pigeon” that you are liable to stop what you’re doing when you hear it so that you may better listen, so that you may better take it all in. Obviously, not every track on The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar isn’t going to gut-check you the way this one does, but all ten songs are culled from the same place of earnestness and musical integrity. It’s impossible to not like this album, but it is possible to parse the reeds and dig deeper to find something even better than before.