Jackson Emmer – The Jackson Emmer Songbook

Jackson Emmer - The Jackson Emmer Songbook

Pensive guys with acoustic guitars and a flair for mystery have faired well in popular music over the years – just look at the singer/songwriter legacies left behind by luminaries like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Ray LaMontagne.  Jackson Emmer may at first present like one of these tortured souls, churning out deeply wounded biographical stories only slightly muted by a subversive public persona.  In truth though, Emmer’s actually maturation as a performer is more in line with Bon Iver or Wilco than with the assuaging austerity of the aforementioned names.  If you take Justin Vernon’s cabin-in-the-woods motif and fuse it to Jeff Tweedy’s scrappy earnestness, you’re at least in the ballpark.

Armed with only an acoustic guitar, his voice, and a Dylan-esque ability to conjure poetry out of ostensibly mundane storylines, Emmer takes the decades-old folk singer archetype and reinvents it for the modern day – this is a man who’s retreated to the pastoral beauty of rural Vermont but still manages to find poignancy in Jonah Hill movies and the scent of Chinese take-out.

And so goes the Jackson Emmer Songbook, 10 tracks that shine a light on Emmer’s browbeaten guitar work and ace lyrics.  Perhaps most importantly though, the record seems to be wholly untouched by digital production techniques, resulting in the sort of palpable immediacy usually experienced only in intimate live settings.

From the outset, it’s clear that Emmer can do ragged and mercurial temperaments with great aplomb; “Coldwhitewine” fuses loping guitar rhythms and idiosyncratic imagery (“We could boogie, jitterbug, or electric slide / keep me on my feet until the end of time”) with crackling lo-fi ambience and unorthodox vocal phrasing.  As a result, the track exudes exhaustion and anxiety in nearly equal doses.  “Jonah Hill” marries melancholy country blues with a reflective storyline whose gravity – “I miss the days when I was single / and you weren’t here / crying on your shoulder / is no better than just crying in my beard” – is partially masked by Emmer’s conversational cadence.

Though not much more than two minutes long, “Goodtime Today” is one of the album’s most puzzling and yet masterful strokes, a snarky parody (“Let’s watch a movie / or hit the mall / shave our heads in a bathroom stall”) stitched together with reverent melodic quotations that, at one point, even pay homage to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  A similarly subtle wit is on display for “Bet on the Farm,” where a bluesy half-step harmonic motion, literary turns of phrase (“You sing like a cloud / rumble so loud / the volume is feelin’ right”), and percussive thwacks translate into one of the LP’s most strident moments.  “The Dead Boys of Vernon” is choice campfire material, a spooky narrative anchored by sparse instrumentation and Emmer’s woozy drawl that chronicles the demise of a pair of hellions after their debauchery gets the best of them.

Admittedly, there’s not much here to latch onto if you remove Emmer’s vocals; his guitar playing has a loveable sloppiness about it, but it’s not enough to sustain more than a half hours’ worth of music.  But as any songwriter worth his Martin D-28 will tell you, the real magic occurs when those simple chords are fused to the author’s words.  With that in mind, the Jackson Emmer Songbook is a vivid and vital record, one in which the ethereal and mollifying atmospheres of the genre’s enigmatic forebears are generally eschewed for sentiments more tarnished and raw.  Deeply personal and yet undeniably humorous at various points too, you can’t help but wonder if perhaps Jackson Emmer finds as much solace in the comedy of Frank Zappa as he does in the resolute solitude of Johnny Cash.  No matter the answer, Emmer’s latest offering does not disappoint – it’s yet another testament to the staying power of a man with a six-string and a story to tell.