The Crooked Jades, |
The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 2: Yellow Mercury
(Copper Creek, 2003)
The Crooked Jades, out of San Francisco, are not just another old-time revival band. Yes, they are old-time, and they are revivalists, but they're not content, like other bands in their section of the CD store, to reproduce those now-familiar, no longer so exotic-sounding 1920s recordings. Those recordings are clearly an influence, of course, but the Jades want to push the music forward. They do that by going backward, or at least affecting to do so. If Southern Anglo-American folk music didn't sound like this in the 1820s, it ought to have. (In truth, there's no way of telling just what it did sound like.) Mike Seeger's recent True Vine (Smithsonian Folkways), which plows its own paleo-oldtime path, brings the same thought to mind.
Sometimes the Jades' ambition exceeds their execution. "The Old Man Below," a hoary Appalachian comic tune, starts out just fine but works its way to some truly creaky fiddle sounds that come across less as aged than as poorly conceived, or perhaps just poorly played. Some of the vocals here and there are fairly shaky. The imperfections, however, are sort of endearing, and if you've been looking for a young band to reinvent old-time music in a way true to its spirit, you won't let a here-and-there offended ear get in the way of appreciation on larger grounds.
It occurs to me that maybe those words sound like damning with faint praise. I don't mean the praise to be faint, or the appreciation grudging. Just a bit qualified, maybe. Here are some of the things I like:
An imaginative song choice, largely devoid of chestnuts. And if you have to throw in a chestnut, who is going to bellyache when it's "Shady Grove," particularly when it's done the way the Jades do it? It's also nice to find that "California Blues" is not the Jimmie Rodgers tune later covered by Merle Haggard, as good as that is. "Ain't No Grave," however, is the African-American spiritual beloved of traditional bluegrass artists, though the Jades have their own distinctive reading.
Good, strong fiddle tunes and, more than occasionally, nonstandard line-ups of stringed instruments that work to unexpectedly archaic effect.
Some mournful-to-depressing originals, for example the dirge "Love Creek," dedicated to "the people who died in 1982's Mud Slide Disaster in the Santa Cruz mountains." As a songwriter who's tried, I'm here to tell you that it's a lot harder to write a convincing faux-traditional ballad than it looks. This one is not only compelling but lovely in the disconcerting way good songs about terrible events can be.
Even with the occasional misstep, the Jades are never boring, which is more than one can say for many of their contemporaries. One doesn't doubt for a moment that with their appealingly innovative approach the Jades do their part to keep old music as old as they can make it.