Thrill Jockey have used the ‘American Primitive’ tag when describing Glenn Jones’s music on My Garden State, although I must admit it is not a description that immediately springs to mind when listening to this album, and I feel it does the work a disservice. Certainly it doesn’t sound primitive, but rather than suggesting that it is undeveloped, I understand that the phrase was coined by Jones’s mentor John Fahey to draw parallels between the natural, untutored guitar playing in the folk tradition and school of art known as the French Primitive Painters.
Essentially, the idea of ‘Primitivism’ in the art world is to borrow visual forms from older civilisations, whether it be the islanders of Tahiti or the paintings of cave-dwellers, and bringing them into contemporary art. In the case of Henri Rousseau, for example, this means transforming the simple scenes of animals painted on walls into hypnotically vivid tableaux when the central subject is reduced to a bit-part in the scenery. Arguably Fahey, and those who followed after, managed a similar effect by taking the basic folk guitar playing and turning it into a much more vibrant, multi-hued sound.
It is pretty obvious after spending some time listening to ‘American Primitive’ music that the players are not naive or untutored, which is one of the notions that follows Primitivism around; maybe there haven’t been years spent in classrooms playing scales but these musicians have not just sprung fully-formed from nowhere – there have been years of practice, coupled with sessions with other players, to refine the technique. So the approach has been, at the very least, learn-by-doing, and taking lessons from peers whenever necessary. There’s little naivety here, either; this is complex music and requires thought, time and dedication to achieve.
Oddly enough, the closest My Garden State gets to ‘naive art’ is the cover, an image that seems to be a mish-mash of a Christmas card and a representation of the Green man, in the guise of a leaf playing a left-handed banjo. It is clear that this image is tapping into something special for Jones, but it doesn’t make any sense to me; fortunately the music is where it matters, with the track titles referencing some personal place or moment of particular resonance. Bookended by two brief recordings of chimes, this is a dazzling work of guitar playing, dragging out melodies that seem familiar and yet are still fresh. The key track to understanding the work is, I think, “Alcouer Gardens”, named after a group of New Jersey care homes for those suffering with dementia; given that music is often used in the care for Alzheimer’s sufferers, it may not be such a leap to consider My Garden State an album of songs written to connect to the patients, one of whom is Jones’s mother. The record is full of vivid picturesque moments, but there’s no sudden changes or surprises here, and as a whole, it is an album to soothe, rather than alarm. The sense of new music that draws on older styles may, in some small way, be therapeutic.
That’s not to say that My Garden State just drifts by; it’s a vital album that grabs a hold of the listener and embeds its melodic tendrils into your brain. Accompanied by Laura Baird on banjo, “Across The Tappan Zee” is a jaunty, playful delight. The centrepieces for each side, “Going Back To East Montgomery” and “Like a Sick Eagle Looking At the Sky” are continually evolving works, whilst retaining a definite structure. “The Vernal Pool” has that sense of newness about that composed in the studio works sometimes do (rather than the more familiar feeling of ‘still needs a bit of work’). This is an album that manages to be light and joyful, yet full of depth and discoveries many listens on, a record steeped in tradition but sounding fresh as a daisy. American? Definitely. Primitive? Not to these ears. One of 2013’s finest? Yep. (Jeremy Bye)