Lost Chords and Serenades Divine #2 by Stephen McClurg
Junk Genius, Ghost of Electricity, (1999)
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off …
The ghost of ’lectricity howls in the bones of her face
~ from “Visions of Johanna,” By Bob Dylan
I’ve been haunted by this Junk Genius recording for almost two decades. The next record that Junk Genius never made, but that I badly wanted, haunted me, too. I suppose we all have a secret playlist of the soul.
During the ‘90s, I had an obsession with Bay Area jazz and free improv recordings. Junk Genius was a Bay Area quartet of serious and exploratory musicians. Both of their records take on large song and music forms and then use their personal and group interests as filters to de-code and recombine the elements of the genre traditions they happen to be tackling.
In both instances, these musicians spent a lot of time playing from a particular tradition (bebop for the first record, the American folk tradition for the second) and then they used that musical knowledge as inspiration for sets of new tunes that explore the tones and textures of the precursor compositions and recordings. It’s not homage or throwback music.
I’m still processing their first record, but Ghost of Electricity immediately spoke to me. The photo on the cover is perfect to complement the music. This was released during the CD-era and vinyl hadn’t found its way back, but if it had, this would have been a beautiful record cover.
I like dense music, but I also like it when musicians let sounds breathe, when they use silence and space as much as knotty, note-filled passages. There is a lot of breath on this record and a spareness, maybe, again, that haunting quality. Melodies flicker and cough, and are frequently played softly.
John Schott and Ben Goldberg are precise musicians, with intelligence, wit, and soul, and this record is often about how their musical voices interweave, fray, and meet again. It’s a small version of some of the traditional American themes of there-and-back again: hobo boxcars, road trips, migrations, homecomings, rags to riches to rags.
“Gone Away,” the opening track, begins with a lilting, plaintive melodic line that captures what so much American music is devoted to: loss. What makes Junk Genius’s approach different is that they are not trying to echo these themes in lyrics or in getting a string section or toy piano, or even trying to be Ye Olde String Band. They filter that past through their own contemporary approach to improvisation that is influenced by Bill Frisell, Albert Ayler, late-era Coltrane, and angular jazz from the Chicago Art Ensemble or ECM recordings.
“Long Way” opens with the earthy, dark tones of bass and clarinet. Then the percussion rhythms are echoed by guitar arpeggios. Schott plays snippets of melodic pieces that recall the melody from “Gone Away,” though the tone is more restless, more lost. If “Angle,” the third track, were a kind of descent, “Long Way” is a floating in the darkness.
“Aberdeen” reminds me of the moment in a noir when a down-on-his-luck man wanders the streets, dusty or rain-beaten, no hope. A slight lilt here hints at the Tramp or Harold Lloyd’s Man with the Glasses.
“When” resounds with dreamy hopefulness, and with dissonant guitar chords backed by soft, malleted percussion. Goldberg plays long tones over the rest of the group. There is a buoyancy that has enough brightness to be hopeful that spills over in cymbal washes. It’s possible the title is a reference to how the American Dream seems to be something not in the present, maybe even that possibility of reaching a “when” provides some sort of hope, no matter how small or quiet.
“Indication” contains a lyrical, tuneful melody and also opens with the duo of Goldberg and Dunn. The tune finds a darker tone towards the end when after a short drum section, Dunn plays arco long tones that slide and descend. The interplay throughout this section is interesting because you can hear all four musicians pick up threads of melody or rhythm from each other and reconfigure them back out into the group. There is a restlessness, a searching quality, in the performance that realizes an ideal Americanness.
You can get Junk Genius’s records from online distributors and their label Songlines.
Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.