The ants were talking to us. They had been for weeks. If only we were even moderately fluent in Ant. They knew what was coming and they weren’t mucking about. Headed for the high ground – eggs in tow. Infiltrating our every potted plant on the upstairs balcony. A constant stream into the kitchen and straight for the pantry. Not a hint of aggression, this wasn’t an invasion, it was a purposeful and orderly relocation – essential. They were shouting at us. Louder than the goldfish shouts some mornings once it’s certain that we’ve forgotten that it’s well past piscean breakfast time. Not aggressive, but somewhat desperate. The juggling eggs of the worker ants were the formicidaic semaphore flags that we just weren’t reading. Then it rained. It rained constantly. The ground reached saturation point. It kept raining and there was no place for the water to go but downhill. Then the river slowly rose and the city flooded. Bull Sharks were spotted swimming down the freeway and as inundated houses were abandoned and disappeared below the brown tide many domesticated carp were, perhaps happily but involuntarily, reintroduced to the wild. My street being on high ground was spared, thankfully, and as I watched the city drown from my front yard I listened to a collection of music entitled Desolation Happiness by Jameson Swanagon.
The music snuck up on me slowly in the same manner as the flood waters and before I knew it I was immersed in the eleven original solo guitar compositions. Coincidently several of the track titles have aquatic connections – “Lake Shore”, “Baracole”, and “Sad Fish”, #’s 1, 2 & 3.
The artist describes the music as “melodic finger-picking folk music” and the overall sound of the album is sonically sparse, with a distinct indie, cottage-craft tone to the package. Musically, the album works within a fairly limited palette, but these bounds are well examined and there is never a feeling of repetition from track to track.
Swanagon studied composition at the New England Conservatory in Boston and cites the influence of some relatively obscure and unconventional guitarists such as Mark Ribot, Scott Tuma and Derek Bailey. Certain listeners may not be enthused by these associations, as the work of these artists is far from mainstream and sometimes even described as difficult, unaccessible or downright asterisk-ampersand-question mark-percent-exclamation. Like the muddy waters at the end of my street, I was a little reluctant to step in… but once I did, I really enjoyed the journey, being reminded more of Towner, Abercrombie and Methany than any of the artists previously mentioned.
Unlike so many modern guitarists who seem hell-bent on proving that they can do the work of three or more players regardless of the cost to the music, there is a distinct lack of Boom-Chick, Slap-Tap or flashy Widdley-Diddley stuff on this record, and it’s a refreshing change. The performances conjure impressions of conceptual skeletons being explored and fleshed out through improvisational experimentation. Although this music will not intrude as background fill at your next dinner party, it pays substantial dividends if given a little attention and time to enter into the atmospheric space that it creates. At times tentative and perhaps self consciously awkward – then confident and bold, the pieces are mostly always engaging. A couple of the tracks, “Awkward Kid” and “Sad Fish II”, feature a hint of atmospheric high pitched minimalist harmonica. On the first listen I thought I had left a mic feeding back in the next room, but once identified, the harp adds a sharp additional edge to the atmosphere of these tracks.
Desolation Happiness seems to be the debut release for Jameson Swanagon, and projecting forward I imagine it probably won’t be regarded as the pinnacle of his artistic output, but rather a strong early indicator of his potential as a composer and player.
This spontaneously detailed, inventive, and thoughtful review matches Jameson’s music in its meandering focus. Nice ride all around.
Thanks for this concise and accurate review. I am very glad to learn of Swanagon’s work. Very refreshing after 40 years of Windham Hill and Fahey clones
I find the use of “flashy Widdley-Diddley stuff on this record” by the reviewer a refreshing way of reviewing. I always want to type something like that and chicken out. Bravo! Oh, and I like the music too!