Essential New Music: Jake Xerxes Fussell’s “Out Of Sight”

Jake Xerxes Fussell has a storyteller’s voice. It’s big and clear, and you won’t miss a word he sings. Warm and friendly, it invites you to pull up a chair and listen to his tales, which are drawn from American and adjacent folk traditions. Fussell is also a gifted guitar accompanist; whether backing gospel and blues performers or framing his own singing, he knows just how put the vocalist in the spotlight with strategic licks that, when you single them out, sound as right as the first cup of coffee in the morning. The challenge that faced Fussell in making his third album for Paradise Of Bachelors was to figure out how to use the resources of a full band without getting in the way of his gifts. He and his crew, which includes associates of Pelt and the Mountain Goats, have gotten it right by crafting unfussy arrangements that honor the antiquity of the material without trying to reproduce it.

Atmospheric steel and strings amplify the mystery of fisherman’s lament, “The River St. Johns.” A dragging cadence and behind-the-beat piano underscore the fatigue of the working stiff narrating “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” and the churchy backing of “Drinking Of The Wine” invites the listener to consider how the same substance that made last night so lively brings spiritual peace on Sunday morning. Out Of Sight is the first Fussell record to include vocal-free tunes, and both “16-20” and “Three Ravens” afford moments of reflection on an album that is otherwise alive with imagery. There’s no song named “Out Of Sight,” but perhaps the LP’s title acknowledges that Fussell and his team have knocked this one out of the park.

—Bill Meyer