J.P. Jones,
(Vision Company Records, 1999)

J.P. Jones goes a long way back. He did an album for Columbia/Windfall back in 1972. But success eluded him. After that he was trying to get another major label interested in his music for years -- to no avail. Still, his repertoire of songs was increasing and increasing. To get his music out to the people who enjoyed it, Jones decided to put up his own record company, through which he released several CDs during the '90s. Ashes is his latest offering.

Jones comes from a Bob Dylan/Phil Ochs tradition. His husky voice is not unlike Dylan's or Steve Forbert's. The vocals are often delivered in a style that's closer to talking than singing. Charming, though. The album is produced very acoustically. There's nothing fancy here: bass, drums, vocals, harp and guitar, all of which were recorded live, giving the album a very spontaneous touch from which Jones' music profits enormously.

Since the "back to the basics" style becomes him best, it's no surprise that the weakest track here is the one most cluttered up: "Don't Feel Guilty" literally drowns the man's talent. He's much better and sounds much more at ease when he is the raspy storyteller.

Close your eyes and every now and then you feel as if transported back to the heydays of the folk revival of the '60s. Only a few songs were written recently; most of the material comes from the last three decades. Still, Jones is able to create a unity with his music. He is not as down-to-earth as Utah Phillips, but he's far from being a modernizer of the folk tradition. Jones is especially successful when he's adding unusual instruments, like the dumbek or djembe, making his sound mysterious as can be heard in "To Be a Man." Every now and then there are also shades of the Dire Straits to detect; "Black and Blue" has the same straightforwardness as Mark Knopfler's best work.

His lyrics are not of the "I love you / do you love me?" kind. "To Be a Man" tells about the day after the army came marching through the town, leaving only suffering and poisoned wells in their wake. In the blues-drenched "Some Sunny Days," someone stores up all his anger and waits to pay it all back one fine day. The purgatory of the heat in "Stand in the Fire" lets us know that life is too short to follow false gods and that it's only love that matters in the end. Much darkness here and few illusions left. For Jones love clearly is the only power that can keep the coldness outside. But as strong as love seems, in the end it all hangs "By a Thread."

This might not be a record you would want to listen to when the walls are closing in, but these songs are very well written and Jones has more than just something to say. He is a well-kept secret. It's high time to unravel it.

[ by Michael Gasser ]

Buy Ashes from Amazon.com.