Album review: Jeff Lang/Carried in Mind

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: roots
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The electric (or electrified – or as Jeff Lang calls it, ‘amplified’) guitar is one of Music’s greatest anomalies. An instrument originally designed for chamber music or polite vocal accompaniment, the guitar had various microphones and pickups lashed to it early last century in an attempt to keep up, volume wise, with the dance bands it played rhythm under. Innovators such as Charlie Christian in jazz and T-Bone Walker in blues loved and exploited the new, ‘vocal’ tone that the guitar now had. By the time Jimi Hendrix came along, guitarists were playing the electrics more than the guitar itself.

Iconoclastic Australian guitarist Jeff Lang has never lost sight of the origins of the guitar – even when he is ‘amplifying’ it to the point of gnashing ripped-metal thunder. Over the course of thirteen albums, Lang – described by Bruce Elder as “the godfather of an Australian-based back-to-basics blues movement that encompasses John Butler, Ash Grunwald and Xavier Rudd” – has evolved his style through folk, blues and rock into something these tags would not come close to classifying. A relentlessly artful and restless musician, he has crossed frets with Bob Broznan and collaborated with Malian kora master Mamadou Diabaté and Australian-Indian tabla player Bobby Singh. He continuously seeks to discover further and further variations on the concept of strings across a soundboard: slide, fretless, clean, distorted, odd tunings et al.

‘Carried in Mind’, Lang’s new album, brings many of these threads together, but all as servants to a collection of strong songs. He calls his music ‘disturbed folk’, which says as much about his traditional/non-traditional approach as it does about his wry sense of humour (check the darkly hysterical rocker, ‘Frightened Fool’) and calls the new album “A batch of brand-new, reconditioned, rust-removed, freshly ventilated, instinct-driven musical conversations between sleep-deprived, cheaply-clothed, (mostly) freshly-shaven, (partially) clean-living, flinty-eyed gentlemen wielding precision instruments with all due care and respect” – which, under the flip jokes, is pretty accurate.

Lang cuts his music live in the studio – “eyeball to eyeball” – with his shit-hot rhythm section: Danny McKenna on drums and Grant Cummerford on bass (more about new chum, pedal steeler Garrett Costigan in a minute). I was lucky to experience Lang and his band at this year’s Bluesfest and I remember marveling at the almost jazz-like telepathy drummer McKenna brought to the intuitive flow of Lang’s music (I also remember walking away muttering the words ‘intense, intense, intense’ under my breath). The album’s opener ‘Running by The Rock’ – one of two murder ballads here, albeit a revved up 6/8 – captures that rush and rolling flow perfectly. The rhythm gets snared here and there by Lang’s nasal Eastern licks – sounding like knotted wire – before the band jams it out with the transcendant abandon that only a truly disciplined band can spit out at will.

‘I’m Barely There’ and ‘Fishermans’ Farewell’ bring the mood down to show off Lang’s songwriting – each piece sweetly atmospheric and a small world of its own (the bubbling water-wah-guitar on the latter is masterful). It is hard to believe many of these songs are Lang originals; some sound like old old folk melodies that one seems to remember from a distant past – check the truly chilling child-murder ballad ‘Newbridge’. The pedal steel of new member Garrett Costigan adds so much to these tunes; that ‘high, lonesome sound’ soars over Lang’s sound-worlds like eagles or bright parrots here, shredded orange clouds there. On the humidly erotic ‘Towards Love’ Costigan’s steel perfectly compliments Lang’s gut-wrench-heavy Neil Young guitar. This is country music from hell.

One true delight of almost all of Jeff Lang’s output – and surely a large part of his strong influence on younger players – has been the sense of ‘ancientness’ in his music. The unbreakable link to the folk and blues of the far distant past has always been there – a reassurance in stupidly fast times, a humanness in a robotic world – and there are two utter gems on ‘Carried in Mind’ that carry that charm. One is an instrumental miniature, ‘You Never Know Who’s Listening’: one minute and two seconds of san syen, e-bowed banjo and drum that summons the blues all the way from Africa over the seas and across the centuries in a simple and devastating way.

The other is Lang’s arrangement of the British sea shanty ‘Jack-A-Roe’. He cites the Bob Dylan version (from ‘World Gone Wrong’) – I know it from a Grateful Dead official bootleg – whatever: the humorously twisted subject matter (disguise, deception, danger) could well be Lang lyrics. Over McKenna’s insistent brushes, Lang recounts the tale before his guitar  thunders and grinds across the top. A real trip in every way.

‘Carried in Mind’ – the album title conjures a culture of storytelling before the written word, when all history was held in the memory of the elder, the wise and the wizardly. Jeff Lang has made another remarkable album, using the unwritable language of music – another remarkable album made as no one but Jeff Lang can.

Published October 2011 on theorangepress.net

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