What's in a name? With Jennyanykind, a latent possibility of moving in any of several musical directions. The band, whose core consists of identical twins Michael and Mark Holland, has made a few false starts and detours over the past decade. First there was the obligatory foray into indie alt/rock, typified by the album Mythic (1995), which one observer compared to "Syd Barrett composing 'Astronomy Domine' in the mid-'90s...". There was a brief stab at the big time when Elektra signed Jenny and released their cathartic Revelator, after which the band was unceremoniously cut and sent packing to its home base in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In 2000, the brothers dispatched the "band" guise and made I Need You entirely on their own. The album was a lo-fi but conceptual stroke of genius; an unpretentious though commercially overlooked achievement. Drawing on the simple details of life's daily routines, I Need You was a working person's dream, recorded between lots of rounds of golf by a couple of guys with real day jobs. And then, just as the brothers seemed to be hitting their stride, they quit.
That didn't last long. After about a year and a half of inactivity, Jenny's derelict web site sprang back to life, the brothers stocking it with MP3's of new material (à la Wilco) that took shape as another album. Peas and Collards was available to Jenny's faithful remnant of fans until the downloads were silenced last summer in anticipation of the official release from Charlotte, NC-based MoRisen.
Back to another indie label, huh? Perhaps some people never learn, but in Jenny's case the music is simply too worthwhile to remain dormant. Peas and Collards gives testimony that Jennyanykind is the best little band rambling under the radar between North Carolina and Florida.
The title refers to a Southern tradition of eating greens on New Year's Day, a talisman of wealth and good fortune -- all the more wry given that worldly success has eluded not only Jenny but most native Southerners. The title track opens with a funky bass line and head-bobbing beats, followed by a verse that synopsizes the band's milieu:
Momma loves peas and collards
She loves living in the country
Me, I'm in the city
I been singing the blues come evening...
That's been the experience of Southerners for the past hundred years or so. And while the quasi-hip-hop rhythms rumble along, the song is ornamented by Michael Holland's swampy slide guitar. This is what Jennyanykind does best: reflecting contemporary Southern culture with a fusion of old and new sounds that are both utterly familiar and surprisingly fresh. The entire album is one mighty groove that the brothers punctuate with deep-fried flourishes. Here and there, apparitions of well-known artists arise in the periphery (Dire Straits, Doors, Steely Dan, Dylan, et al.) but they recede as quickly as they came. There's never a sense that this music is derivative; it feels timeless and well worn, like it belongs in the public domain.
"The Promised Land" introduces the listener to one of Jenny's most important "members." Big John is the name of a creaky old upright piano the brothers found in their makeshift studio -- an abandoned schoolhouse outside Chapel Hill. They named their digs "Big John's" and an asymmetrical drawing of the ancient instrument is the studio's logo. Big John is in tune, but it still clangs like a children's vacation Bible school accompaniment. Michael Holland's disembodied voice hanging over the keys on "The Promised Land" is enough to make John Lennon sit up in his grave.
"The Good Life is Half Right" and "Rainy Night Blues" are songs that could easily fit onto a David Lynch soundtrack: atmospheres thick with humidity, darkness and bugs. "Don't Bother Me Devil" is an exercise in fusion where the pace shifts from harried to funereal, like two events occurring on the same New Orleans street.
Generally speaking, Jenny has backed away from any notion of pop pabulum, but "Listen to My Wave" and "A Moment in Time" are hook-laden enough to deserve quality air time. However, it's when "Clear Tone Blues" arrives that one gets to the heart of Peas and Collards. This eight-and-a-half minute track allows the band to stretch out a slow-burning jam that borrows heavily on transitional phrases from I Need You cuts "Acoustic Ambient" and "The Price of Love". Textured with a droning organ and Mark Holland's baying harmonica, it's the kind of piece that makes a perfect soundtrack to a slow ride in the country, past brackish creeks and cattle and barefoot kids up to no good. As the track glides along it becomes apparent that this is what Jennyanykind is: an expression of the same vibe Charley Patton caught nearly 80 years ago, that has snaked its way through town and country over the decades up to the present and will likely continue undaunted into the foreseeable future. No need for "alt" tomfoolery -- this is the music of the post-Allman Brothers era, and for now Jenny is its most fluent articulator.
Now having said all that, wouldn't it be something if Jennyanykind's next record (if there is one, given their tenuous self-limitations of late) veers completely away from this rootsy wave they've ridden over the past five years? Let's hope not. Peas and Collards is a more than a worthy successor toI Need You, proof again that the best music in America is still being made in the byways and hedges.