Jackie-O-Motherfucker: Flags of the Sacred Harp

Dan Raper

Someone should be making this music: it reminds us where we came from, and why it still matters.

Jackie-O Motherfucker

Flags of the Sacred Harp

Label: All Tomorrow's Parties
US Release Date: 2005-12-06
UK Release Date: 2005-12-05
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From Jackie-O-Motherfucker's website: "JOMF are indisputably self-aware and muse at length upon their process and goals, but in the end, instinct overrules calculation. The yield is a rich, multivalent music that reflects and refracts the larger world."

If this puts you in mind of a group of smoke-addled music majors, sitting around spouting theoretical nonsense and creating un-listenable drivel, don't worry: despite the terrible name, this experimental jazz/folk/noise group has a well-defined message, inventive methodology, and has created a polished, patient record that is a worthy expansion on an already brilliantly-established traditional American theme.

Flags of the Sacred Harp is the band's tenth recording, but fits most snugly as a follow up to their first CD release, 2000's Fig. 5. The subject matter is the same -- Americana, re-figured; the method, similar -- depart from a traditional form and re-imagine, re-construct, re-interpret. For Flags, JOMF return to one source used on the 2000 disc, the Sacred Harp songbook -- a traditional American form of religious group singing. The "sacred harp" refers to the human voice, and these traditional songs, often sung a cappella, rely on the voice in a way that is surprisingly modern. I've sung the original Sacred Harp arrangement of "Amazing Grace" (a free-jazz, multi-layered version of which appears on Fig. 5) and it's all open fifths and echoing syncopations, full of a stark and arresting beauty. On Flags, JOMF capture this beauty and eeriness with assured patience, demonstrating with clarity how these old forms are still fundamental, even in the U.S., even in 2006.

One other telling characteristic of Sacred Harp singing is the raw, unblended sound of untrained voices overcome by musical fervour. JOMF have internalized this characteristic not just in the looped snippets of traditional songs that are used here, but in the very fabric of the music itself. A good example is the album's opener, "Nice One". From the very beginning, the strings of the guitar sound just a hair sharp, the voices when they enter, half a semitone flat. The immediate effect is of raw, heartfelt song, on the edge of being dissonant but not quite reaching it -- and it's a perfect statement of the whole work's plodding, easy musical interpretation of the patchwork quilt of modern America.

What's so appealing about the whole disc is that throughout, JOMF aren't afraid of taking their time. The music is slow and unfolds slowly, with heavy repetitions, almost like a mantra. It seeps under your skin, brimming with atmosphere, and evoking images of the big skies, wide, slow-moving rivers and lonely mountain ranges of America's west. "Loud and Mighty" echoes with ships' bells and seagulls' cries, the clanging restlessness of a sea port. "Hey Mr. Sky" flutters with a creeping cymbal, an open vista of soft sound. "Rockaway" rocks slowly, washing back and forth on an almost visible tide.

But 'brimming with atmosphere' doesn't necessarily make for compelling music, as is demonstrated on Flags' only misstep, the directionless, frittering "Spirits". The song uses glissandos, electronic squawks, harmonics and sudden tremolos to evoke a land filled with spirits of the dead, but the boiling/bubbling, shimmery noise alone isn't enough to fuel 16 minutes' worth of experimentation.

By far a more successful melding of the disparate elements of gospel folk, touches and shivers of sound, and echoing acoustics is the album's jangly, slow-moving final epic, "The Louder Roared the Sea". In this slow-expanding, slow-contracting sonic world, the three minutes of silence before the final wail doesn't make it a 'secret track' but a pause, a coda. If you're listening to the record on headphones, for three minutes the sounds of the world leak in: cars and buses roar; a raucous bird calls; a child cries. Then we hear a final music: children's singing -- a celebration, "when you do the limbo dance", and the record comes to a close.

Though two multi-instrumentalists, Tom Greenwood and Jef Brown, make up the core of JOMF, the collective now draws on a cadre of about 20 musicians trading loops and ideas from New York to DC back to Portland. You can hear this patchwork-confluence of ideas and influences on every track on Flags, and apart from "Spirits", nowhere does it sound incongruous. Once again, the group has succeeded in making insular, patient, intelligent music that flows with the flow of time. Because of this, we're lucky to have a group like Jackie-O Motherfucker, we're lucky to have these self-aware, method-musing musicians. Someone should be making this music: it reminds us where we came from, and why it still matters.


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