Jess Williamson – Native State


The title track to Jess Williamson’s Native State begins with her playing two-finger banjo, a technique that’s worlds away from trendier styles like Scruggs style (with its breakneck arpeggios) and clawhammer (with its galloping backbeat). In the two-finger style, the player picks out a melody with the pad of her thumb while droning on the bottom string with her forefinger; the effect is something distinctively unhurried, meandering like some Appalachian wanderer. It’s a style that leaves cavernous room between the plucked notes – and as these notes are left to breathe and sing and resonate within the drum head, the spaces between them meld into ghost tones that sound off in hypnotic rhythm. It’s a very cool effect.

Now, I hope I’m not dwelling on minutiae here, but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, Williamson’s banjo style seems especially pertinent. Seeger’s 1948 instructional booklet, How to Play the Five-String Banjo, did immeasurable work towards popularizing the instrument, perhaps in part because it taught a simplified version of clawhammer, a style that’s instantly compelling, rhythmic, and fit for vocal accompaniment. Two-finger banjo is more for sitting down than getting down, and so it never really took off in the American psyche.

Yet Williamson’s sonic seed tells volumes about her musical universe. The album progresses slowly, ploddingly, with the patience of an Indian raga. On opener “Blood Song,” a fingerpicked electric guitar enters the stage near the front, pauses, then dances about; in the back left, a slide acoustic interjects color commentary. Only a sparse handful of instruments appear in each scene, yet with each new instrument, the stage becomes deeper and wider and taller; it becomes as expansive and calm as the air beneath a blanket of stars.

These songs generally swell and recede at an unhurried pace, meditatively, yet a few curious shifts – drops, if you will – populate the album. On “Spin The Wheel,” for example, a stormy mix of electric guitar, cymbals, and wine-glass synth yields suddenly to brilliant electric organ chords and a lilting boom-chick. “Now they’re singin’ all mornin’, now they’re singin’ all night,” Williamson sings and repeats, giving in finally to the temptation to craft an easy refrain out of her oft-quotable lines.

Which brings us to her vocals. Williamson wraps her mouth around words in peculiar ways, certainly; she sounds occasionally like she’s holding marbles in her throat. The melodies she chooses are likewise idiosyncratic; she bounds around upon scales, popping in and out of falsetto. But for all the weirdness, her voice captivates, and her lyrics hit hard. Atop these dark and wistful soundscapes, her cloudy alto oscillates from a croak to a caterwaul, holding the listener rapt all the way. Take this album all at once, because a song or two just won’t do – this is a singular sonic exploration, and at just under thirty minutes, it’s over before you know it.

– Kevin Allen