This week in honour of the latest outing from the Coen brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis” we’re dedicating the entire blog to that most noble of beasts the acoustic troubadour. Those who take on all musical challenges with an instrument they can carry on their back and set about making some of the most heartbreaking music you’re ever likely to hear.
6Music turned over an hour of their programming this weekend to sit down with Joel, Ethan and their musical main man T-Bone Burnett, and discuss their musical influences and how important music is in their movies. I’ve long been a fan of the Coen Brothers work, and the idea of them making a film about a struggling musician on the Greenwich folk scene in the early 60s is pretty much my idea of heaven. Add to that the fact that they’ve got John Goodman playing a disagreeable jazz musician and I’m pretty much convinced even before I’ve seen it that this is going to be one of the greatest movies of all time!
It’s clear from the way they talk about the scene how interested they are in it. A film loosely based around the relatively little known folk musician Dave Van Ronk is not the obvious way to take on an era largely now remembered for the role it played in Bob Dylan’s career. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the Coen’s career to do the obvious thing though, and as they say Dylan’s a pretty big subject to take head on. Van Ronk too is perhaps a more interesting character in some ways. As they stated in a recent interview they found great joy in a character who had all the talent to be a star without ever really becoming one. Van Ronk is rated very highly by the people who were with him on the scene yes but a global superstar he never became.
Listening to Van Ronk for the first time (as I’m sure many people have lately) it’s very clear he’s an incredibly talented man, and his music certainly drew the interest of The Coen’s as much as his story. He’s an incredibly talented blues guitarist, he recalls Mississippi John Hurt more than he does Dylan or Guthrie, and he openly admitted his major influence was Reverend Gary Davis, who “thought of the guitar as a piano around his neck” and that precision pulls through into his playing style.
Throughout their sparkling cinematic career they’ve always used music cleverly. From The Big Lebowski’s lead The Dude’s soundtrack song by Creedence Clearwater Revival to the bluegrass styling of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? they’ve constantly found the right sound for the right character. Just as folk stories have had a huge influence on their storytelling, folk music has been key to their soundtracks. As their musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett says, traditional American music is the only true history of America, the only time when American’s are honest with themselves about their history, away from all the pomp and hype, in their roots music they told it how it really was, and it’s that honesty that’s key to the sound of Greenwich then and perhaps to the sound of the modern day troubadours too!
Damien Jurado – Brothers & Sisters Of The Eternal Son
I first came across Damien Jurado last year at End Of The Road. The programme notes there noted rightly that his performance was not to be missed, but what was perhaps more interesting was the fact they spoke of his love of field recordings, his versatility and his many different projects. Interesting because what we got was Damien and his acoustic guitar and some brilliant stage banter. It was a spell-binding performance from a brilliant guitarist with a more than decent voice, as one reviewer noted his tracks “journeyed between the sorrowful and the sublime” but there was little hint of the promised eclecticism and creativity.
So what to expect from Mr Jurado on record? Well if this new record is anything to go by, expect the unexpected. Take opening track “Magic Number” starting off fairly as I’d imagined with a picked guitar and a drum roll, before being joined by swathes of strings, that without wishing to over state the grandeur sound a bit like the title track to a James Bond film. This mixed with a soulful, soft vocal give the whole thing a touch of UNKLE’s recorded material. It’s all very pleasant but nothing like the acoustic minimalism I experienced from his live set.
Tracks like “Silver Timothy” and “Return to Marqopa” (the title referencing his previous work) continue to have a vibe of underated 90s bands, there’s more than a touch of The Beta Band on show throughout in fact. The former paring it with an intro that’s all “Heard It Through The Grapevine” swagger and an outro with a saxophone that’s a bit Austin Powers theme song, the latter mixing in a touch of glam recalling 1980s era Bowie.
It’s not until fourth track “Metallic Cloud” that I get anything that sounds like the Jurado one might expect. Mixing some gently beautiful guitar, with a piano lead. There’s a bit of John Lennon, and more than a touch again of Bowie but this time it’s more his grandiose pop numbers rather than his glam stomp. This is followed by a real stand out “Jericho Road”. It’s all weirdly echoed vocals and a Neil Youngish guitar line. There’s a touch of Bad Seeds stomp, though without Damien ever letting his vocal truly jump forward like Nick Cave would. The clanging bells mixed with the sense of sadness and remorse indeed recall a personal favourite The Travelling Wilbury’s classic “Tweeter and The Monkey Man” and there’s a similarly apocalyptic feel to it.
It’s a mixed bag of an album, perhaps summarised best by “Silver Donna” which starts off likeable enough. The percussion is given an African lilt and with a wailed vocal that recalls Justin Vernon, and a propulsive bass line adding a further “world music” vibe the whole thing is constantly on the verge of breaking out into a full on afro-beat dance number, the fact it never does is a huge disappointment, indeed I was left feeling a bit like I’d just listened to Leeds also-rans The Music, that is there was a nice enough beat to it but it never really went anywhere. It’s forgettable!
From here on in though the album steps up a notch, by stepping back a bit. “Silver Katherine” is a beautiful melding of finger picked acoustic guitars, vocal harmonies, and latterly a cello, it recalls Fionn Regan at his most heart breaking. “Silver Joy” is a true US folk number, born somewhere in the Appalachian mountain, his voice takes on a huskyness Ray Lamontagne would be proud of and it works wonderfully.
Best of all however is “Silver Malcolm” it shows what a wonderful album this could have been if he’d got the balancing act of experimentation right. Mixing gentle acoustic guitars with some very spacey piano notes creates a beautiful sound. When the beat kicks in it’s more of The Beat Band meets Bowie, and this gentle morphing of his sound is what every artist dreams of achieving. Progression without losing what you were, it’s pretty much perfect, though more than anything you’re left wishing the rest of the album was just as good, we’ve got a very good album indeed, but we could have had a great one.
Brothers & Sisters of The Eternal Son is released on Secretly Canadian on January 20th.
Inside Llewyn Davis is in cinemas nationwide from January 24th