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Abner Jay - One Man Band

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Artist: Abner Jay

Album: One Man Band

Label: Subliminal Sounds

Review date: Dec. 3, 2003

Abner Jay’s extensive bread-crumb trail of albums, disseminated via his own Brandie Records imprint, represents one of the most individual takes on traditional song form to have risen from the 20th century. Jay spent several decades (the 1930s through the 1950s) working in touring minstrel shows, resurrecting the spirit of his late grandfather through songs passed down through generations. But it was when Abner Jay started traveling and performing solo in a portable home fleshed out with a public address system that his work really started to elevate.

Jay’s take on traditional American musics - blues and spirituals - was accurately captured by writer and musician David Keenan in a recent issue of The Wire as “slowing (them) ... down to a laggard, awkward lollop”. Jay plucked his banjo with an insistent gait while maintaining a ponderous rhythm on a bass drum and hi-hat combination powered by his feet. But it’s the combination of Jay’s harmonica playing, which shivers between the gaps offered up by his slowly unfurling blues phrases, and his deep and rich vocals, that gives One Man Band its affecting qualities. Jay's work continually encircles similar themes: sex and relationships, the everyday and the social, drugs and depression.

Abner Jay’s stories frame his songs in such a way that the heart-breaking melancholy of his singing can slip by. But it’s in that see-sawing sense of emotional tension that Jay’s music is at its most powerful. This is best exemplified by Jay’s delivery near the end of “I’m So Depressed”, where he unspools an aching vocal performance and then destabilizes the song’s very title by offering a generous handful of rough laughter slipped between key phrases. The beautiful uncertainty in that performance can be found throughout One Man Band, humanizing the 13 songs collected here and exposing the generosity at the heart of Jay’s music. His music seems to be saying, with its very fibre, the simplest and most universally relevant things: each experience has its opposite, and it is this dialectical relationship that energizes music which holds sympathy for humanity as its strongest suit.

By Jon Dale

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