Graded on a Curve:
Glenn Jones,
The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar

Glenn Jones is no stranger to this column, for no other reason than he continues to make fine records. As the number of contemporary American Primitive-descended solo fingerpickers grows, the idea of temporarily setting Jones’ achievements to the side of the spotlight has been contemplated, but when an LP as strong as The Giant Who Ate Himself and Other New Works for 6 & 12 String Guitar hits the speakers, such a notion gets the kibosh with due swiftness. Aided by friends Laura Baird (recording engineer) and Matthew Azevado (mixer), it finds Jones as personal, personable, and sure handed as ever, arriving on CD and vinyl (with a limited toad green option) August 24 through Thrill Jockey.

Although there are instances to the contrary, Golden Ages (as in the Golden Age of Comics and the original Golden Age of Television) are distinctions best bestowed after the passage of time. As it was unfolding, nobody was calling the output of John Fahey, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, and less prominently but beneficially, Peter Lang, Max Ochs, Harry Taussig, and Don Bikoff the Golden Age of American Primitive Guitar, but from the vantage point of the present, describing it as such feels like a designation free of controversy.

That’s partially because the American Primitive impulse continues to thrive. There was definitely a period of severe waning, where plucking records from the Takoma and Vanguard labels out of the bins (when they occasionally appeared in shops) maybe felt similar (at least somewhat) to discovering a house with an attic holding a box with a copy of a shellac disc by Mississippi John Hurt or Son House or Sylvester Weaver. Okay, this analogy is definitely a stretch, but hopefully one understands the reason for the comparison.

American Primitive didn’t die, though it’s reemergence through records by Steffen Basho-Junghans, Richard Bishop, and a little later Jack Rose did sorta register as a rebirth, and the style remains well-represented today. Indeed, the field of American Primitive-influenced players is currently deep and wide-ranging, enough so that claiming we’re in the midst of a Guitar Soli renaissance, if perhaps jumping the gun of assessment a bit, isn’t the slightest bit inappropriate.

Inside this creative flowering no player better embodies the Golden Age of American Primitive Guitar better than Glenn Jones. He’s been at it now for a long time, in fact since This Is the Wind that Blows it Out in 2004 for Strange Attractors Audio House (the label that first brought Basho-Junghans to the turntable), and across our current decade he’s issued a fantastic run of albums (The Giant Who Ate Himself is the sixth) through Thrill Jockey.

As said above, Jones’ records have been prominently featured in this space, but rather than recalibrating the praise with the risk of faltering into superlatives, it suffices to describe his latest release as superb, and in a sense typically so, as there’s no major adjustments in style. However, it’s simultaneously quite impressive in how the contents carry a personal focus that’s unusual for instrumental music.

One track on The Giant Who Ate Himself does so particularly well, and with connections to the early years of the American Primitive. That would be “From Frederick to Fredericksburg,” which per Thrill Jockey’s promo text was inspired by a trip Jones made with his friend, collaborator, and fellow fingerstyle guitarist Jack Rose (at some point prior to Rose’s passing in 2009) to visit the celebrated 78 collector Joe Bussard.

As on Jones’ 2013 LP My Garden State, this track heightens the autobiographical, but in this case with strong historical resonances. For starters, Jones shares with his traveling partner Rose a pre-solo background in rock bands, respectively in Boston’s Cul de Sac and Virginia’s Pelt. But more important is the visit to Bussard, who along with his status as a collector, disc jockey, and hater of rock, modern country, and hip-hop, operated the 78 RPM record label Fonotone (the last of its kind, with a 5CD collection of the imprint’s catalog issued by Dust-to-Digital in 2005).

Fonotone is noted for releasing the first recordings of John Fahey, the guitarist described by Thrill Jockey as Jones’ mentor, with the title of this album an homage to the man who remains his prime influence. But in the late ’60s, Fonotone also released a disc by Max Ochs, with its song “Imaginational Anthem” serving as the inspiration for the Tompkins Square label’s long-running compilation series of Guitar Soli.

In this one track from The Giant Who Ate Himself, Jones offers an overflowing cornucopia of past and present enhanced by enriching aspects of his own story and does it all without a trace of strain and with complete command of technique invested in beauty rather than flash. Anybody impressed by the work of Daniel Bachman, William Tyler, Gwenifer Raymond, Sarah Louise, and Laura Baird who hasn’t heard Glenn Jones is in for an utter treat. It makes total sense to start right here.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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