Jack Rose - "Miss May's Place" (Dr. Ragtime and His Pals / Self-Titled)
Jack Rose is a magnificent guitarist. On solo records since 2002, he has built himself a genre in which to develop his unique playing style, stretching out American bluegrass and blues into quasi-religious meditations. On this double disc on Tequila Sunrise, Rose explores these themes on his own (Self Titled) and in a band (Dr. Ragtime and Pals). The Pals are Mike Gangloff (of Pelt) on banjo, Glenn Jones (Cul de Sac) and Micah Smaldone on guitar, Nathan Bowles (Spiral Joy Band) on washboard, and Harmonica Dan on harmonica. In part, these two faces of Rose balance each other. Rose’s liquid solo excursions cleanse the palette after the group jangle of the Dr. Ragtime recordings, while the exchange of musical ideas in the band lessens the intensity of his inward focus. As such, the double album is more than the sum of its two parts.
These recordings include a mixture of standards and originals, some of which appear on both discs, and no one ever breaks the sepia spell that starts with the album cover. The internal coherence of the album and its existence within a scene increasingly saturated with American Primitive style numbs the listener. Spacing out, one gets lost in the steel-string wash and the genre conventions become merely a framework for repetition and trance. But when tuning back in, one gasps for breath, stifled by the weight of tradition.
Classic country and its periodic iterations depend upon this stylistic cage for artistic tension, and there are few musical moments as jarring as attempts to marry country to the beat-based and experimental traditions of the last 30 years (see Lucinda Williams’s quasi-rapping on World Without Tears). The terrain Rose treads, fusing rock sensibility to country and Eastern classicism, is as old as rock itself. We know Rose can make modern music—he did it in Pelt and continues to experiment, as on the recent EP I do Play Rock and Roll, but he seems to need the cage in order to fully demonstrate his virtuosity.
Richard Thompson has the same burden, of being an extraordinary musician who has invented a new way of playing the guitar. His albums also flicker from trance-inducing to irritating; when I was little, we called him “the droner.” Rose is of course much earlier in his career but seems to be experimenting in the same way, with where to pour his talent. Collaborations provide relief from the focus of genius but harness him to lesser beasts. One wishes he could become as innovative a composer as he is a player.