Willie Reviews Jake Xerxes Fussell’s “Out of Sight”

Willie Reviews Jake Xerxes Fussell’s “Out of Sight”

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Traditional music is alive and well and living in Durham, North Carolina. Folklorist, guitarist, and singer Jake Xerxes Fussell’s third album, Out of Sight, takes nine songs from the archive and reintroduces them after applying a tender touch. There is love and mystery in the ghosts of folk music past. RPM’s review:

Performing traditional music in 2019 depends on an incredibly distant source and the assumption that you will be able to attach yourself to that source material. Still, interacting with a historical moment totally different from your own provides the principal pleasure of crate-digging and archive-searching. At the center of any song from 100 years ago is an incomprehensible something. The modern listener is, from the start, totally at odds with the song’s set-up due to the passage of time. And that’s exciting. Maybe you can work your way through the archive and arrive at an understanding, and maybe not. But for all that is said about folk and traditional songs being timeless, they are helplessly linked to their time and place of origin. That indelible mark is in the words and the music, change as they might. Beyond that, a tune might suddenly turn and become the property of an artist who does a particularly unexpected or transformative rendition. These traditional songs are at once historical objects and pieces liable to (and expected to) rise suddenly out of the conditions of their birth. This prospect drives the obsession of musicians and listeners alike. As one of those listeners fascinated by the secrets of the archive, I can say that the best “revolutionary” adaptations of traditional music preserve the impenetrable nature of the original. Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle are folk artists doing just this by consulting the musical record in library basements and record stores. Another is Jake Xerxes Fussell. His new album, Out of Sight, presents the whole of his musical learning in a way that is completely his own.

So where does Fussell find his way in? Well, it helps that he has a lifetime worth of experiences in the folklore world. Growing up, he accompanied his father on fieldwork to document traditional culture of the South. He played with folk and blues legends, studied the guitar, and pursued graduate work in ethnomusicology. If there is anyone qualified to devise an album like Out of Sight, it’s him. Since he wasn’t raised with one particular tradition or track of expertise, he is able to spread himself out in mysterious ways. This requires a series of chance connections between sources (i.e. a page from a songbook revealing a new take on a known song) before ultimately arriving at a finished track. He details each of these journeys in a wonderful essay included with the album. They range from personal explorations to social experiences. “Oh Captain” comes from original material by Willis Laurence James, whose work Fussell had to seek out. Then there’s “16–20,” which he learned from friends in the Chattahoochee River Valley. The influences are threaded in and out through antique discs, oral histories, and his own radical reworkings. They also extend to the task of creating new voices. On opener “The River St. Johns,” Fussell sings as a fishmonger. This is always a tough task for a prospective performer. If he sets out to imitate Harden Stuckey’s original, born from Stuckey’s childhood memories of the fishmonger’s call, it comes off as insincere. If he glosses over the words, he pays no respect or attention to the intention of the original and it becomes an exercise in ego. The tone Fussell presents on that opening track is also a primer for what the rest of the album will be. The band takes it slow and Fussell sings as though he’s experiencing a revelation. When his voice cracks and starts, you can almost hear him breaking the edges of the mysterious original. All academic pursuits and emotional journeys converge to create a song that comments on the sublimity of its original.

Jake Xerxes Fussell, photo by Brad Bunyea

His game is not just reverence, however. The band is lush, and they are collectively expressive enough to perform an instrumental version of “Three Ravens,” one of the most well-known ballads ever. Though the song is defined by its words, Fussell only needs to refer to them by the band’s swaying “verses” to succeed in capturing their essence. The sound invites comparisons to Jim O’Rourke’s orchestrated American primitive sound, the melancholy of Wilco, and Fussell’s friend and fan Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The contours of the songs are of this century, without a doubt. Yes, they are launched by the strong foundation of the originals, but you and I will likely gravitate toward them due to these more recent influences. The songs don’t excise their oldness, but there is a push toward legitimizing our contemporary forms as well. Endless variations often end in unexpected, artful places far removed from their origins. Recognizing those sounds is a big step. “16–20” features a low drone that sounds not a bit out of place. It builds in a meditative way that extracts the spirit of the guitar’s melody and passes it around. It’s not hard to plant new textures into old music, but it is hard to find ones that cohere as these do.

Lest you doubt you’re in good hands, Fussell writes in his accompanying essay, “Murder is so commonplace in old songs that I don’t know if the term ‘murder ballad’ is very useful. Maybe we should be breaking it down to which type of murder, and what was the motive, and what sort of weapon was used, things like that.” Truly, there is an investment in the narrative form here that is unmatched by lots of similar projects. Fussell is the correct and only performer of his updated material, and he is able to keep it all up in the air by sheer force of will. Making this music is the project of a lifetime, and it’s not something he can easily drop. We should look forward to his exploration of the remaining one million songs lost to time.

Score: The dream of a friendly, old guitar.

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