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George Graham Reviews Jake Blount's "The New Faith"

The Graham Album Review #2135

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Jake Blount: The New Faith

(Smithsonian Folkways Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/2/2022)

With music being atomized by the internet into individual songs rather than coherent albums, old fashioned concept albums are not very common. Art rock groups and were big on sweeping album-length collections of related songs, some of which told stories or were connected in one way or another, going back to the Beatles Sgt. Peppers and several albums by Pink Floyd like The Wall. At about the opposite end of the spectrum are traditional folk songs which tend to be very much self-contained. In the past, artists like Pete Seeger would put together anthologies of, for example, work songs. But until this week’s album, it hadn’t occurred to me that one could create a high-concept folk music album, drawing on some traditional songs, in very creative treatments. However, that’s just what we have this week, it’s the new release by multi-instrumentalist and folk music scholar Jake Blount, titled The New Faith.

Jake Blount is a 26-year-old African American banjo player, fiddler and vocalist from Providence, Rhode Island. He has specialized in the folk music traditions of Black and indigenous Americans. He released his debut album in 2020 called Spider Tales which brought an interesting twist to the traditional folk music. He is also part of a duo called Tui, and in 2020 won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize, and was a two-time winner at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival. He has also lectured on the traditions and cultural connections of the music.

Created in the depths of the COVID lockdown, with Blunt suffering from what may have been long COVID, and the wake of the killing of George Floyd, he created a dystopian world in which the country was devastated by climate change, and a small group of Blacks makes their way north, post apocalypse, from the unlivable south to eventually a small island off the coast of Maine. And in their journey they undergo spiritual discovery. Blount provides some spoken word narrative but largely uses traditional folk songs, most from the African American and slave culture to express the displacement, with their lyrics being surprisingly relevant to the story. Blount performs many of the parts himself, recording in literally in his bedroom, but also brings in backing vocalists, a bassist, some percussion, and perhaps most strikingly, a rapper named Demeanor, providing a fascinating dichotomy between the banjos and fiddles and the rap. However, for the imagined world in which this takes place, it’s highly effective, and highlights how relevant the lyrics of the old songs can be.

Opening is a track called Take Me to the Water and Prayer. It’s a narrative that sets up the story of the album. By the way, Blount traveled to Cushing’s Island, Maine, for the ambient sounds. <<>>

The first of the full songs is The Downward Road which Blount said was based on an Alan Lomax field recording from the 1940s. <<>> The rapper Demeanor, makes an appearance, providing original lyrics to the traditional song, which which makes for a fascinating mix. <<>>

Another traditional song is given a treatment that reminds us about how relevant it is. Didn’t It Rain adapts a song that was written about the Galveston, Texas flood in the early 20th Century, and has been recorded by numerous artists, including Tom Rush. Jake Blount’s version brings in the imagery of the biblical flood. <<>>

Quite stark in sound it Tangle Eye Blues another of the songs that was and collected and recorded by the folklorist Alan Lomax in the 1940s. <<>>

Another fairly familiar folk song that Blount reworks for his concept album is Death Have Mercy, probably known to many from the version sung by Ralph Stanley in the film O Brother Where Are Thou under the title O Death. Blount gives it a rhythmic, almost danceable treatment <<>> before Demeanor makes his appearance with a rap. <<>>

A song in line with many old spirituals, about seeking a better place, is A City Called Heaven which is done with a low-down electric guitar accompaniment, with his version mixing a quest for earthly improvement with seeking heaven. <<>>

On the other hand, with a kind of upbeat acoustic treatment is They Are Waiting for Me with the resonator guitar played by Samuel James. <<>>

The albums ends with another of its compelling tracks, Once There Was No Sun an interesting take on the creation myth. Blount says he based it on a performance by one Bessie Jones collected by Alan Lomax in 1965, together with material drawn from “Angola” a song by enslaved Africans in Jamaica documented in 1688. Blount plays both the banjo and the strings. <<>>

Jake Blount’s new album New Faith is a fascinating recording that explores the juxtaposition of African American spirituals, songs from the slavery era, with elements of Appalachian folk. He weaves it into a high concept album about an imagined post-climate-apocalypse, and a Biblical-like pilgrimage to a more hospitable promised land. In the process he weaves very old folklore with contemporary technological fears, old time banjo music with rap. It’s quite a remarkable album.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A” with the acoustic instruments and vocals well recorded, and the use of ambient outdoor sounds taken from an island like the one Blount imagines as a destination for his refugees.

Blending the paradigm of concept album with traditional style folk is something rare indeed, and Jake Blount has really pulled off a masterpiece.

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