There’s an old saying that goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If that is indeed the case, it could easily be applied to music, too – and most commonly folk music, at that. Folk has, after all, long been a medium for telling stories, and the songs on Jake Xerxes Fussell’s second long player, ‘What In The Natural World’, do just that. The album paints incredibly vivid mental images, immersing the listener in the sometimes fantastical, sometimes grim worlds of those that Fussell sings about. Thanks to both the well picked source material – the album consists entirely of covers, though it’s unlikely you’ll be familiar with any of them – and Fussell’s characterful, authentic delivery, ‘What In The Natural World’ is a shining example of how to combine folk new and old.
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Fussell absolutely brings these songs to life – there’s a vintage, old world charm to these tales that’s counterpointed by a more contemporary musical backing that fits Fussell into the booming modern folk scene. This duality makes the enigma of ‘What In The Natural World’ all the more intriguing; it’s a record that feels fresh and familiar, new and traditional. Opener ‘Jump For Joy’ is a perfect example of Fussell’s talent for taking an old song, making it his own and stamping a contemporary mark on an eighty year old song. The original, sung by Duke Ellington, is a swinging big band piece that though charming doesn’t quite manage to highlight the delightfully surreal lyrics. Fussell’s take on the track casts it in a whole new light; spacious and emotive, his deliberate delivery gives a new weight to the words and allows the song room to breathe. Subtle keys and plaintive guitar work set the tone for a record that’s never in a hurry to get anywhere and is all the better for it.
‘Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing On A Sweet Potato Vine’ trades in the gnarled delta blues of the original for a panoramic slice of Americana with Fussell‘s soaring vocals giving the album its first real hook. The gently melancholic sway of ‘Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine’ positively oozes Appalachian tradition, its world-weary tale of prospecting in perilous mountains more than enough to immerse the listener in its story. ‘Lowe Bonny’s stark narrative of a jealous would-be lover likewise crafts a vibrant mental image, with Fussell’s reworking of the sombre blues original breathing new life into the track and only furthering the idea that, with ‘What In The Natural World’, Fussell is here to remind us all just how powerful traditional song can be.
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Throughout the album, Fussell delivers his lines with an almost conversational intimacy and ease. Key to the success of many of ‘What In The Natural World’s songs is that he takes the role of bard and storyteller rather than singer in the tradition sense, allowing the lyrics to take centre stage. It’s a sign of Fussell’s respect for the songs that he chooses to often hold back; especially when ‘Have You Ever Seen Peaches…’ shows just what an able vocalist he is. Songs like ‘Billybutton’ and ‘Canyoneers’ benefit no end from Fussell’s relaxed approached, whilst still managing to never feel underplayed or throwaway.
If 2015’s self titled debut established Fussell as one to watch, it’s ‘What In The Natural World’ has cements him as a standout figure in the bustling contemporary folk scene. It’s a lovingly crafted and well executed record that polishes decades old diamonds-in-the-rough into sparkling new gems. It’s the sort of record that gets to know you as much as you get to know it; take the time to become acquainted with it, and you’ll have found an album fit to come back to for years.