BY JENNIFER KELLY
Stone Jack Jones wrestles with ghosts and doubts and spooky atmospherics on this fourth full-length, infusing folk, country and Americana with a post-modern haze and rattle. A Nashville mainstay himself, he rallies many of his Music City contemporaries to assist — Yo La Tengo producer Roger Moutenout is back behind the boards, folk singer Patty Griffin again lends her spectral harmonies, and members of Lambchop (including a memorably gothic Kurt Wagner) and Lylas stop by to fatten up the sound.
I first ran into Stone Jack Jones on 2005’s Bluefolk, a mournful, wry, superbly eccentric take on country folk blues (on which Patty Griffin also appeared). A decade later, Jones remains stalwart and leathery, his voice as weathered and idiosyncratic as, say, Michael Hurley, but with an echoey bottom range that transfuses the natural with elements of the supernatural. With Love and Torture, however, you sense an even more permeable boundary between the real and the imagined, the concrete and the spiritual. Intimations that Jones has been ill between this and the last album Ancestor come as no surprise. Love and Torture sounds like the music of a man who has been thinking about mortality.
It’s partly that the textures are so ghostly. Even tracks that read like conventional love songs — the single “Shine” for instance — come across with a mirage-like blurring of boundaries. The drum machine and guitar kick up a mechanical rhythm, while a drone of organ shivers in the background. Someone is clanking a kind of junkyard percussion in the background, and Griffin is singing soft, gleaming counterpoints behind a bank of fog. “The sun will….shine…on the other side,” sings Jones in his funereal way, his baritone twined with Griffin’s, and there’s only a little bit of sun and a whole lot of the other side in the way the line is delivered.
“Q&K” is also a queasy love song, its rapid-picked banjo running like water through a swell of motionless kraut-y drone. I like the way Jones stands at the center of this propulsion, fundamentally unhurried, as he croaks and croons love poetry tinged with the fear of death. “We were born in love and passion, falling down, everlasting” he sings, and there’s a sense of time passing by, a stillness at its center.
“Circumstance” pits the banjo against Kurt Wagner’s ominous mutters; this song is the darkest and most gothic of all, but also, quite possibly, shaded with humor. “Disappear” is less overt, but no less disturbing. Its dopplering tones zoom in and out of focus. Its drum machine beat ticks on like a macabre wind-up toy. The guitars are surrounded by echo, but full of warmth and clarity. There’s an intriguing interplay between organic sounds and electronics and effects, a woozy insubstantiality that speaks to the hollowness of what we think of as real. “In the morning I’ll be leaving here, in the morning, this will all disappear,” Jones intones, and it seems to be disappearing even as he sings.
There are lighter moments, most notably the inebriated group chorus of “Russia” (“Meet me in Russia, we’ll drink some vodka”), but this is, overall, an eerie, evocative, wee hours kind of album. Gorgeous and chilling, it takes the simple reassurance of country folk and turns it into something weird and ominous and unforgettable.
DOWNLOAD: “Shine” “Circumstance”