Music

Jake Xerxes Fussell: What in the Natural World

Some things are eternal. Beauty is one. Strangeness another. Brutality a third. The songs here reflect all of those, through the harshness and beauty of the natural world, the generosity and brutality of humankind.


Jake Xerxes Fussell

What in the Natural World

Label: Paradise of Bachelors
US Release Date: 2017-03-31
UK Release Date: 2017-03-31
Amazon
iTunes

Traditional music can feel too often like a costume party -- you see the surfaces, and those surfaces might be impeccably detailed, but you’re missing everything about the past that matters. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s music is deeply traditional, in the sense that it’s built from, and connects to, the music of the past. But it's no costume party.

His second album What In the Natural World continues the path outlined on his 2015 self-titled debut; taking old songs, familiar or not, and inhabiting them through his singing and acoustic guitar-playing. Fussell is of the South, growing up in Georgia, son of a folklorist, and living in Mississippi and now North Carolina. The songs he chooses to sing tilt toward the South, but not as much so as you might expect - What in the Natural World opens with a song associated with Duke Ellington (“Jump for Joy”), for example.

If “traditional” means understanding and caring about music from the past within a context -- caring about the people, stories, and human circumstances that the music came from -- the world certainly applies. At every step, Fussell seems fascinated by the ideas and worlds contained with these songs, and how those ideas are larger than any one time period. But if the word means trying to make your music sound like it’s old, then Fussell is in a different place.

There are a lot of words you can throw at Fussell’s music to try and describe the immediacy of it, and few of them will really lead to understanding. What in the Natural World is a huge step forward for Fussell when it comes to presence. Jake Xerxes Fussell was riveting for his cut-to-the-bone delivery of unfamiliar songs that struck achingly familiar chords within us. What in the Natural World does the same with a more refined, defined feeling of space. Musically but also in feeling -- as if there’s a difference.

The contributions of Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, piano, melodica), Nathan Golub (steel guitar) and Casey Toll (bass) are important to the spacious musical approach, but it’s also somehow in Fussell’s guitar and singing alone.

The haunted quality of the music makes me want to describe Fussell’s approach as exhuming ghosts, but at the same time, I can readily think of problems with that way of thinking. The past and future aren’t so far away here. At the same time, legends and myths, even ghosts, materialize within many of these songs.

Some things are eternal. Beauty is one. Strangeness another. Brutality is a third. The songs here reflect all of those, through the harshness and beauty of the natural world, the generosity, and brutality of humankind.

All are present in songs about coal miners, treasure seekers, canyoneers, and repo men -- some living, some in legend or ghostly form. The repo man is in one of the eeriest, saddest and most striking songs on the album, “Furniture Man”, taking a recurring character from old blues songs that feels relevant today and painting a portrait with a resigned sadness. The music’s especially mournful and clear, as he sings, “And if there ever was a devil who’d been born without horns / well he must have been a furniture man.”

Sadness is omnipresent, even in songs where the lyrics are too strange to allow us to immediately access the cause of the sadness, like on “Billy Button”, which could be nursery rhymes, jumbled Bible verses or the ramblings of an eccentric butcher. One of the many things Fussell reveals in these old songs is strangeness, a beautiful strangeness in the words and melodies, even of songs that we think we understand everything about, like “Bells of Rhymney” or the leaving song “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?”, which reveals layers of meaning the more you listen.

One question posed in “Bells of Rhymney”, “is there hope for the future?”, seems like a dominant one in 2017 and also a sentiment laying somewhere within the fabric of most of these songs. Fussell doesn’t seem to be too overtly or self-consciously trying to use old material to make commentary on the present. But it’s hard not to make connections, which is a testament to the power of these songs themselves and the way Fussell’s approach to recording them illuminates that power.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.