David Jacobs-Strain,
Ocean or a Teardrop
(Northern Blues, 2004)

David Jacobs-Strain, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, is a young guitarist and a generically familiar cultural figure: a white guy with natural picking gifts and in possession of more native ability on his instrument than he knows what to do with. What sets him off is not his blues focus -- that sort of thing has not been novel in a long time -- but his models, who are not (as we've come to expect) the electric hot-licks likes of Freddie King and Buddy Guy, but rather prior-generation, Depression-era rural songsters such as Kokomo Arnold ("Kokomo Blues" in this instance) and Sleepy John Estes ('The Girl I Love"). Make no mistake, though: he's not recreating that antique sound, just using it as a place to take off from.

So he's sort of, say, Stevie Ray Vaughan with an acoustic guitar, which means skill and intelligence combined with bombast and more notes than necessary. I'd take that over most of his (more or less) unplugged-guitar contemporaries and their too-precious personal songs, oblivious to any tradition older than, say, James Taylor records. Still, there is a lamentably unresisted compulsion to excess-wallowing, expressed in an unceasing and overwhelming attack, as a variety of instrumental sounds bang and thud in every direction from expected quarters (organ, drums, harmonica) to unexpected (oud, congas, tape loops). Jacobs-Strain, well, strains for a 21st-century blues sound, along with producer Kenny Passarelli, who does this sort of thing better with traditionalist/futurist blues-prophet Otis Taylor, who -- not incidentally -- has notably more years and seasons on him than the well-intentioned but inevitably callower Jacobs-Strain.

Still and all, Ocean or a Teardrop leaves no doubt that this young man is a talent to watch or, as on this disc, to listen to for its better moments. The often-recorded spiritual "Soul of a Man," opening with Jacobs-Strain's somber slide, soon becomes encased within a seamless sonic wall, but he and his band take care to construct the building before they enter it, and the structure rises and stands sturdily around them. Jacobs-Strain does not try to emulate the vocal styles of the source artists (in this case the choke-voiced Blind Willie Johnson), but his husky phrasing, while never as deep as intended, is nonetheless effective -- and, like everything else about this appealing but still unformed artist, hints at what may prove one day, if circumstances so decree, to be a vital and satisfying vision of what old blues might resemble in their new life in the new century.

In the meantime, we have an album most fittingly described as promising. One hopes that next time Jacobs-Strain doesn't sound as if he's trying much harder than he needs to. A talent needs to breathe, and too much of the time it seems here as if somebody's hands were at its throat. And not in a good way.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 16 April 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.