The Crooked Jades,
World's on Fire
(Crooked Jade Music, 2006)

The Crooked Jades' promotional material reports that the band was "reconfigured" in 2004. Since, except for guitarist Jeff Kazor, nobody is left from the Jades' last full-length CD, The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 2 (which I reviewed in this space on 1 November 2003), you might think there's a story there. Well, not actually. The Jades, formed in 1994, are an elastic outfit, its players moving in and out as time, circumstances and ability to record and tour dictate. You can say, however, that the Jades are founder Kazor's intellectual property, as attested not only by his constant presence but by his authorship here of nearly all of World's on Fire's originals.

I liked the Jades' previous disc, even if one could detect, here and there, hints of distance -- albeit not off-putting ones -- between reach and grasp. The band, which surely did not lack in ambition, had an appealing sound, an effort to imagine -- or so I took it --what American string-band music sounded like before it was frozen on early 78s, thereafter the ur-texts of any number of revivalist renditions.

This time, the Jades -- the current generation -- have not lost their keen sense of the traditional. Far from it. Now, however, the arrangements are, strictly speaking, untraditional. Or at least sort of untraditional. Or let me put it this way: What's going on is nothing like radical imposition; it's more like a working of the music from the inside out, with fresh and aged so seamlessly integrated into one common language that ... well, when I first heard it, I thought I must be dreaming it. It struck me as a form of expression infinitely easier to imagine than to speak.

The more or less new Jades have chops, imagination, intelligence and heart. World's on Fire is one extraordinary recording -- folk music fitted for yesterday, today and tomorrow. The band members are Kazor, Jennie Benford (vocals, and no, no relation to prominent old-time-revival figure Mac Benford); Erik Pearson (assorted banjos); Adam Tanner (fiddle, slide guitar); and Megan Adie (vocals). (Pearson and Tanner were Jades in the band's earlier years.) The instrumental associations, by the way, are only general; members sometimes pick up others. For example, Benford handles mandolin on one cut and Vietnamese jaw harp on another, Adie bass, Kazor piano, and so on. You can look up the details in the liner notes.

Besides the compelling instrumental sounds, the Jades offer an amazing selection of songs, in large part obscure; when not that, at least not tiresomely covered or, if familiar, uniquely performed. Benford's uncanny, poetic original "Can't Stare Down a Mountaineer," which opens the recording, addresses the elusive riddle of this old music's allure: "The golden age's starry crown/Always then, never now/Ask your questions full and free/Ask 'em to the old oak tree." The next song, the traditional "Sandy Boys," gives voice to less airy sentiments: "Somebody stole my old brown dog/I wish they'd bring her back/She chased the big hogs in the fence/And the little ones in the cracks." The two songs, which ought to be situated on either side of an unbridgeable cultural chasm, turn out to be within easy walking distance. Like Walt Whitman, the band contains multitudes.

It, moreover, has the decency -- I can't think of a better word -- not simply to record the nearly forgotten shanty "Shallow Brown" (gratifying in itself), but to set it inside an arrangement where a slide guitar feels like the most natural idea in the world that it never occurred to anybody else to come up with.

by Jerome Clark
1 July 2006

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