Graded on a Curve:
Stone Jack Jones, Ancestor

With Ancestor, Stone Jack Jones’ third release after a lengthy absence, the Nashville-based West Virginia native has crafted a fine slab of dark-hued and occasionally psychedelic Americana. There are surely elements of Southern Gothic in evidence, but across 11 songs Jones wisely keeps his influences in check and delivers an outstanding LP.

According to the brief biography offered on his website, the musician Stone Jack Jones has lived a rather eventful life. In fact, it’s loaded with so much activity that Jones, raised in a coal miner’s company house in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia but for quite a while now living in Nashville, serves as a plum example of the maxim “the truth is stranger than fiction.”

Indeed descended from four generations of miners, Jones was dismissed from Vietnam War service due to epilepsy. Electing against pursuing the family trade he chose to wander instead. Along the way he reportedly worked the carnival circuit and performed as an escape artist, ballet dancer and professional player of the lute; while in Atlanta he operated a briefly flourishing late night performance art club/boho safety zone in the shell of a former strip bar.

If all these doings did happen to be the byproduct of someone’s imagination, there’s a good possibility the creative writing workshop instructor would recommend toning down the action just a little bit, though in reality Jones was even busier; during the early-‘80s he played in an Atlanta rock unit called Kaos, and after landing in Nashville he struck up friendships with Patty Griffin, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner, and noted producer Roger Moutenot, who helmed both his debut Narcotic Lollipop and his sophomore effort Bluefolk.

Ancestor is his third, and it stands as this writer’s introduction to Jones’ work. While I look forward to searching out and spending time with his earlier material, the gap of over eight years between releases inspires me to approach this new record in isolation. And Ancestor proves strong enough to stand completely on its own.

While casual musical associations can be made (and a few will follow), what might be most remarkable is how Jones inhabits a highly-populated genre/style, specifically the Americana/alt-country category, without formulating major comparisons to other previously-established figures in that scene. In terms of sound no, but in tactics yes, at least somewhat; a line can be drawn from Jones to Wagner, who contributes to Ancestor with his Lambchop bandmates Ryan Norris and Scott Martin.

That line details a shared disinterest in playing the role of clichéd country boy/mountain man. Jones does spring from a tangibly more rural well (Wagner’s maybe better described as a Countrypolitan kinda guy), but in utilizing such modern techniques as sampling and other electronic effects, Ancestor is plainly averse to satisfying any sort of purist/Luddite ideal.

Immediately highlighting this scenario is opener “O Child,” the track’s solitary banjo initially accompanied by only the strength of Jones’ voice but quickly enveloped in a significantly contemporary instrumental strategy. In combination with Moutenot’s long-established up-to-date mode of production, “O Child” sets a non-rustic tone from which the LP doesn’t waver. Clearly falling into the parameters of Americana, Ancestor is still accurately assessed as forward-thinking.

And Jones has made a very personal record, but it’s thankfully unharmed by the excessively autobiographical or burdened with overdone regional coloration. Given the life that Jones has led, that’s doubly impressive, but even more so is the reach of his stated influences, spanning beyond music into the realms of literature.

Some of the books Jones lists as having impacted the shape of Ancestor aren’t especially surprising, e.g. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the stories of Eudora Welty and fellow West Virginian Breece D’J Pancake, but there are a couple non-Southern-themed twists in store, one being Sylvia Plath’s Ariel and the other a wonderfully left-field citation of Instant Light, a book of 60 Polaroid photographs taken by the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky.

One thing Ancestor’s assuredness shares with the above names is an oft dark intensity concerned with the idea of existence as an experience not to be enjoyed but grappled with and endured, a compound burden of seemingly huge proportion shouldered by beings infinitesimal in the universe. Or to put it more bluntly, Jones’ album is far from a feel-good affair, and while it may not be as brilliant as the greatest of his influences, it’s also not as uncompromising. In the end, Jones’ LP is a uniformly conceived, major work.

And it does intermittently offer a sense of playfulness. Second track “Jackson” features a vocal meeting between Jones and Griffin, but that’s where any explicit relationship to Johnny and June’s (or Nancy and Lee’s) precedent ends. Instead, with excellent use of keyboards including what seems to be a Fender Rhodes, this “Jackson” offers a slight similarity to the work of Mazzy Star, or possibly more appropriately to Hope Sandoval in a fleeting duet with the late Vic Chesnutt.

As said, the record doesn’t OD on autobiography. And interestingly, the majority of the creators mentioned by Jones as inspiration reached their truths extensively through fiction. But conversely, Jones (a la Plath, perhaps) isn’t afraid of tangling with individual history; this brings us to “Black Coal,” which is folky but also layered with an element of lushness and possessive of a rising power that culminates in a cloud of abstraction and creaky harmonica huffing.

By contrast, the following track “State I’m In” begins with some smoothly-delivered down-tempo singer-songwriter ambiance, its abundance of soloing trumpet managing to add depth without falling victim to a retro inclination or a sophisto vibe. As the song moves toward completion, interweaving conversational voices rise in the mix to promote an understated (and self-deprecating) eclecticism.

Returning banjo reemphasizes the folk flavor in “Joy,” though the warmth of Jones’ voice and the fluttering of what sounds like a synthetic (or digitally treated) pennywhistle (plus more harmonica blowing) deepens the proceedings as they spin into a gospel-esque sing-along. The banjo sticks around for “Red Red Rose,” a decidedly modernist interpretation of an old-timey theme that blossoms into a nicely psychedelic instrumental passage, one reminding these ears of a Paisley Underground act from roughly ’81 tapping into the heft of The Doors circa-’67.

“Way Gone Wrong” is a faster paced curveball; to call it danceable is not inaccurate, the momentum sashaying with unforced confidence and cradling a superb midsection of bowed strings, the aura working in savvy counterpoint to the track’s topical relevance to Abu Graib (recall that one of the participants in those infamous torture photos hailed from West Virginia). And this atmosphere extends into the appealing moodiness of “Anyone,” noir-like as it unwinds but with the added vividness of broad daylight.

Similar to “Red Red Rose,” “Good Enough” registers as an updating of an aged melody handed down over many generations, though its eerie keyboards, dirge-like group-sung chorus and even a touch of radio tuner static near the end sturdily reinforce the contempo orientation. From there the bold Americana of “Marvelous” is a tad reminiscent of the best of Beck’s folky side, and it nears Ancestor to its conclusion.

The ending is provided through “Petey’s Song,” a tune written in tribute to a friend’s dog. Like much of the album, it starts in a stripped-down manner to gradually grow in complexity. I’m again struck by a passing resemblance to Chesnutt, but the momentary connection mainly stresses how much of the music belongs to Stone Jack Jones alone.

In short, Ancestor is a fantastic record, rife with unusual moments and extraordinary poise from a very distinctive performer. His field is a crowded one, but what’s here has legs of perseverance. Too few know him now, but sooner or later, like the figure depicted on the cover, Jones will emerge from the fog.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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