Essential New Music: Greg Malcolm’s “Just Like Jim”

Depending on your perspective, Just Like Jim is a tale of comfort or caution. Your prized possessions may not only outlive you; they might confer your preoccupations upon people not yet born. By the time that New Zealand-based guitarist Greg Malcolm knew his grandfather Jim, the old man no longer played the guitar that’s depicted on either side of Just Like Jim’s screen-printed sleeve. Arthritis had taken care of that. But Jim still knew how to show a kid a good time. He took his grandson out for ice cream, and they whiled away afternoons together firing up the ham radio situated in the shed out back. Perhaps unintentionally, the older man inculcated in young Greg an appreciation for crackling electronic noise and an understanding that your best moments aren’t the ones that make you most popular. 

You see, when Malcolm took up the guitar himself in his teens, the family members who said he was “just like Jim” didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment, because as far as they were concerned, playing guitar is what lazybones do. Still, they gifted him Jim’s beat-up old Hofner guitar, which after some years Greg had restored to playability and then, after many more, used to make this record. It’s hard to know what Jim, who played in dance bands in the 1950s, would have made of this LP, since unless you’ve heard another of Malcolm’s records, you’ve never heard anything like it.

Malcolm uses outboard objects—a needle suspended over strings, a spring hung from nut end—to generate extra sounds, and he accompanies himself by patting his foot against another guitar laid on the floor, which results in a groove that sounds like it was made by a chain-dragging ghost lurching up your creaky, wooden back stairs. Malcolm’s tastes are idiosyncratic, but impeccable. He likes his jazz free but tuneful and his Greek folk tunes bleaker than the deaths they portray. His originals might start near one of those zones, but they will stumble Frankenstein-like somewhere else, meanwhile leaving a hook in your ear so surreptitiously you won’t notice it’s there until it drags you back to hear that song again. 

If you do know Malcolm’s music, you’ll still find this a worthy addition to the catalog. The Hofner, by all accounts a rather wayward instrument even now, forces the guitarist to slow down, and since he’s not in a hurry, he indulges in all manner of friction-oriented trouble along the way. Occasional bursts of radio static honor the man who played that guitar more than 60 years ago. And the package, should you lay your hands on the scarce physical edition, is a thing of rough-hewn beauty. The outer sleeve depicts the same guitar in grandfather’s and grandson’s hands, and the enclosed booklet will get you better acquainted with both individuals. One hopes that somewhere in the beyond, Jim is checking it out while sharing some eternally delicious ice cream with all the other the other lovingly remembered grandpas.

—Bill Meyer