Like most people (I think), I had no expectations for Josh Small’s previous album, Tall, when I first heard it. One Spring, I was looking-up bands that were playing the first Harvest of Hope and Small’s name sounded promising; then I learned he was in Tim Barry’s band which upgraded him to Most-Promising. Since seeing Small play live then, and a bunch more times, and listening to that album on every long drive I’ve done the last few years, Tall has become one of my favorite albums. So, with that, and the fact that Tim Barry’s been running around telling everybody “Honestly, it’s the best album I’ve heard in years,” his follow-up, Juke, comes with much more expectation. Or, you know, as much expectation as an album by a woodsy folksinger blending nineteen-sixties-n-seventies Chicago soul music with eighteen-sixties-n-seventies Appalachian music can be. Which should be a lot!
Juke shrugs off every expectation, because it’s a different album than Tall. Whereas Tall is a y, throbbing, road-album, Juke is more tinny, frisky, and somehow a little more settled and mature. A good walking album. Without even getting into the music, one look at the album credits will tell you all you need to know about the character of this album. Instead of standard credits like “drums,” “vox,” “electric guitars,” some of Juke‘s include: boogie woogie guitars, schoals drums, space bomb guitar, wonkey guitar, resophonic disney jazz, popeye bass, bells and cool stuff, and Jonathan Vasser playing the role of “paul simon” on the track “Everyone’s Daughter.” Weight
Getting into the actual music is easy: it’s The Shit. Would you doubt Tim Barry? (editor’s note: Doing so might catch you and ass whooping) Small’s a virtuoso, kicking ass on banjo, resonator guitar, and who knows how many other strings. His vocals are less dramatic and more dynamic than on Tall. The backing band pops and flips and somersaults. Liza Kate’s guest vocals on “Waterwings” are glorious. Small can write anything from freewheeling, tone-centric lyrics, to “coherent” story-songs. His diction, like Austin Lucas’, can be breathtaking when it hits. See: “Say atonal I love you, make the sound of a bruise.”
Maybe it’s because the banjo, and many other instruments used in folk music, originated in Africa, but Juke stokes a noticeable African influence that goes beyond the blues. That understanding of the instruments is what makes this album so interesting to me—that Small can summon dixieland and ragtime grooves on “Everyone’s Daughter,” choirs and conga on “Sing Song,” straight picking on “Diver Down,” Curtis Mayfield on “15/20,” and bring them all to a head on the album’s closer, “Somebody’s Queen.” Juke earns it’s title. It sounds like what a carousel of American songs sound like.
Obviously, this one get’s filed under Essential Listening.