Liz Janes and Create(!)
Liz Janes and Create(!)
ipping off your forebears is basically a rite of passage for folk and blues artists. Copping Gang of Four may get you rock-crit sneer, but aping The Carter Family puts you on the path Dylan and Cash took. Combine the potential for invaluable history lesson with the malleability of traditional musics, and it’s a wonder that so few of the contemporary folk startups have stabbed at the genre’s roots. Is anybody out there not interested in hearing Animal Collective take “The Coo Coo Bird” to the chopping block? Devendra taking “John the Revelator” to warble-land?
Sufjan label-mate Liz Janes and Los Angeles free-jazz group Create(!) get credit here for taking a set of public-domain traditionals and setting them to tape under the guise of hazy, psychedelic drones. The re-interpretations are legitimate: Atmosphere is given precedence over the songs’ original melodies, and Janes’s voice contorts the lyrics instead of enunciating their predominantly religious themes. The reliance on acoustic instruments, rather than digital bleat, forces the songs into compromised positions—still housed in acoustic huts but beaten into submission by Janes’s Nico-lite moan and Create(!)’s subtly percussive frame.
As refreshing as it is to see someone take these chances, much of this six-track EP flounders. “Be My Husband” is the most egregious offender—the snapping snare drum and uneven acoustic picking build up the tension level disappointingly neutered by Janes’s deathly murmur, which languishes unceremoniously in the background. “All the Pretty Horses” likewise features a masterful, humming arrangement but is dragged under by Janes’s crawl. The reliance on mood harnesses the band here, forcing the oddity out of the original pieces in favor of tone-dependent mush. Rather than meet the source material halfway, the group pounds it into putty.
The second half of the disc fares much better than the first. A clear-headed Janes surfs wisely over a more traditional arrangement of “Jesus is a Dying Bed-Maker,” allowing gentle cymbal splashes to liven the mix. The real treasure, however, is “Run, Old Jeremiah/Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” Mixing chain-gang chants and buoyant, sparkling strums, it is at once the most reverent and forward-thinking track here, faithful to the song’s original melody and reckless in its bluegrass glee.
Janes and Create(!) miss the mark just too frequently to label this EP a true success, but the ingenuity and bravery they show here should be a beacon for contemporary folk artists. Re-interpretations of folk and blues are not only fruitful diversions from an artist’s original material, they are essential genre maintenance, a cycle of preservation and inspiration. Janes and Create(!) are the first to truly adopt this process; their failures are expected casualties of a long-standing tradition.