Jake Xerxes Fussell’s What in the Natural World

cover artThrow the vandals in court
Say the bells of Newport
All will be well if if if if
Cry the green bells of Cardiff
Why so worried, sisters, why?
Sang the silver bells of Wye
And what will you give me
Say the sad bells of Rhymney

The thing about a good folk song is, if you wait around long enough, it becomes relevant once again. Who knows how many times in its history has “The Bells of Rhymney” been topical, but the gods know its time seems to have come round once again. And just the man to sing it seems to have stepped forward, too, in the person of Jake Xerxes Fussell.

What, you thought this was going to be about Roger McGuinn and The Byrds?

Mr. Fussell is new to me. This is only his second album, following a self-titled debut in 2015. He hales from Columbus, Georgia and he’s currently based in that southern hotbed of art and music, Durham, North Carolina. He’s a forager of songs, one in a long tradition of such. When I first listened to this new album What in the Natural World I thought he sounded like someone who has delved into the “old weird” American songbook once championed by the likes of Harry Smith, and I was right. He’s got an ear for a lyric and another for a melody, and he’s a pretty talented blues-style finger-picker of his electric guitar, too. I’m put in mind of those early Taj Mahal albums.

Fussell’s take on “Rhymney” is pretty far removed from The Byrds’ folk-rock version. Here he pairs it with a shuffling country blues, with backing from Casey Toll on electric bass and Nathan Bowles on drums. Fussell’s sturdy, earthy tenor is out front though, the better to emphasize the lyrics. And as I said, they’re suddenly lyrics for our time, especially this second verse that The Byrds totally left out (as they were wont to do):

They have fangs, they have teeth
Shout the loud bells of Neath
They will plunder willy-nilly
Cry the bells of Caerphilly
Even God is uneasy
Say the moist bells of Swansea
And what will you give me
Say the sad bells of Rhymney

Well, this whole review wasn’t going to be about “Rhymney.” This is a short album of nine songs, tailor-made for a vinyl LP, which would probably be the best way to listen to its richly recorded sounds, especially that vintage Telecaster and Fussell’s vocals.

All of the songs are pretty old, some traditional and some not, and the album cover has detailed source information on them all. I just love the trad “Billy Button” with its tongue-twisting chorus and Bowles’s plaintive melodica accompaniment. Ditto the album opener, the well-chosen “Jump For Joy,” from a 1941 Duke Ellington musical revue. And you won’t find a blues much deeper than the traditional “Have you ever seen peaches growing on a sweet potato vine?” which comes from sources that include the Memphis Jug Band. Here’s a live take on “Jump For Joy.”

Anyone who loves American music ought to be grateful to Fussell for recording such gems as these, including the poignant “Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine” about one of those mythical mines that’s discovered under dire circumstances but can never be found again; and the traditional “Furniture Man” about the cruelties of repossession; the Coloradio River folksong “Canyoneers”; and Jimmy Driftwood’s delightful “St. Brendan’s Isle”; not to mention the lovely Child Ballad “Lowe Bonnie.”

The artwork on What in the Natural World is just as beautiful and inspiring as Fussell’s music. It’s by a fellow Southerner, Roger Brown (1941–1997), who was a member of the school called the Chicago Imagists. This is a classy package all around. Keep your eye on Jake Xerxes Fussell – he’ll be making his mark.

(Paradise of Bachelors, 2017)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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