Essential New Music: Jake Xerxes Fussell’s “Good And Green Again”

You can’t get around dealing with time when, like Jake Xerxes Fussell, you’re a second-generation folklorist. How much do you subordinate yourself to the ideas of the past? How do you get it to make sense in the present? On his fourth album, Fussell once more finds relevance in songs that were written by other folks years ago and, for the first time, composes some tunes of his own.

Of course, you don’t have to spend much time scanning the news to realize that as long as people make it a point not to learn from the past, the headlines and the stories behind them can be recycled with minimal editing. “Love Farewell,” Good And Green Again’s first track, references cannons and battlefields in Europe, but if you swapped the ordinance and the destinations, its scenario of a soldier leaving their love behind could’ve been written last year or tomorrow. Likewise, “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” may have been sourced from an LP of field recordings made 55 years ago, but its story of an industry and livelihoods lost could’ve been sung about whale-oil distributors or video-rental stores.

Fussell’s singing undersells the songs’ themes most effectively. He’d rather lure you in with his warm voice, restrained fingerpicking and some spare piano accompaniment than let the words’ tragedy seep in after you’ve been humming the hooks for a while. Both he and producer Jim Elkington comprehend that understatement isn’t the same as no statement at all, but an effective way to get the attention of people who don’t want to be hollered at.

Given the respect that Fussell has for the power of words, it’s remarkable that most of his originals don’t have any. Three of them are purely instrumental, and their elegant arrangements reveal the music’s elemental balance. Rustling, brushed drums and woody, stand-up bass connect you to the earth like a walk through falling leaves in autumn; guitar melodies flow like water; and brass and pedal steel draw your eyes skyward.

The words to “Washington,” the LP’s fourth original, were actually taken from a found object: a century-old hooked rug that depicts America’s first president and details of his life. Fussell simply lists these objects, inviting the listener to wonder just how you might measure the merits of any life if the founder of a nation can be reduced to a few belongings and a bogus story about a tree.

How will Good And Green Again be remembered? For its skilled handling of historical material? Or as the first flowering of Jake Xerxes Fussell, composer? Only time will tell.

—Bill Meyer