Cosmic, downbeat indie-folk from an Athens, GA scenester.
You can be forgiven for being unfamiliar with the work of Jacob Morris, even though he has been performing and making records for over 15 years. Hailing from an Athens Texas family immersed in music, he began playing cello in his pre-school years and eventually found a spiritual musical home in the eclectic noughties scene of Athens Georgia. In the peripatetic way that seems to characterise artists working in these independent-minded ‘scenes’ Morris has had stints playing with myriad artists in a variety of projects. He has worked with loose-ish collectives such as Ham1, Old Smokey and Futurebirds and performed with Madeline Adams, Vic Chesnutt and Patterson Hood amongst others. He has also delivered one previous solo LP, the relatively straight ahead but nonetheless lovely indie-folk of 2012’s Moths. None of this serves as adequate preparation for what we experience on ‘Slow Funeral’, his new EP of cosmic, indie-tinged Americana.
Perhaps the roster of artists supporting Morris on his two solo projects is the better clue to the way ‘Slow Funeral’ presents. Musicians from Clem Snide, Olivia Tremor Control, Of Montreal and Silver Jews hint at the slightly askew, lysergic indie-folk offered here. Influences of the Elephant 6 collective and the Athens scene are clear but only go part of the way to positioning this record. In essence ‘Slow Funeral’ has, as might be expected from this background, a tendency to the indie rather than the folky end of the spectrum. What sets it apart though is an evident but not always successful inclination to some almost ambient textures and a few songwriting and production quirks that create a loose, off-kilter yet still crafted impression.
‘Slow Funeral’ was recorded in Athens and the sessions were conducted late into the night with the players (Morris on guitar, bass and vocals, John Fernandes – violin and clarinet, Thomas Valadez – guitar, Cullen Toole – guitar and keys and Al Daglis – drums) operating as a live band. This process creates the lovely warm organic sound that comes from musicians connecting with each other in the moment of performance. Their playing seems to inhabit the songs, fluctuating along with Morris’ crafted arrangements yet leaving a looser, almost spontaneous feel that seems to put you right there in the studio with them. Occasionally the performances can slacken, meandering towards the end of a song when the sense of purpose or energy appears to have gone missing. Indeed, the very first words heard on the record could be taken as Morris’ own (overly harsh!) reflective self-evaluation coming to a similar conclusion. After 25 seconds of prime late-era Velvet’s chug and some snaky Yule like guitar lines ‘Drowning’ begins with the words “Starts off so good, then deforms into a jelly”. Not quite, but, occasionally, almost.
There is no doubting Morris’ skills as a writer and here he offers an artfully constructed set of songs that twist traditional songwriting with improvisation. There is also a welcome symbiosis between this songwriting and the record’s production. The already noted looseness and freedom that comes from the ensemble performances of the songs in the studio is tempered by tightly focussed core arrangements and a series of small but (mostly) perfectly formed productions tics, unforeseen switches and hesitations that create interest and keep the listener on their toes. So for example unexpected harmonies brighten ‘Deserter’ and distinctive chord changes (‘Indivisibility’, ‘Lister’) can shift the songs’ accents and serve to keep our attention as things might begin to drift.
And therein lies the issue with ‘Slow Funeral’. Things do occasionally drift along in a way that veers close to the ambient. As Morris and crew stretch out the songs, often with languorous extended instrumental passages, their shape can become lost creating an almost academic aloofness, a distance to the music that is at odds with intimacy they are seeking to create. There is a fine line between creating an atmospheric moody gauze and aimless meandering, one which is intermittently overstepped on the EP. The violin of Fernandes features heavily throughout and creates appealing textures most of the time. Sporadically though it does begin to sound like a jam session that we are allowed to witness through a crack in the studio door. Something that was perhaps more fun to play than it is to listen to.
Fortunately there is always something to bring us back to the good stuff; the already highlighted unexpected changes, some lovely melodic bass runs and Morris’ plaintive tenor, a mix of forlorn chorister and jaded traveller, is unadorned and genuine throughout. At times his voice can be like velvet (there’s that reference again) and at others it cracks with an innocence that is almost unbearable. For most of the record the vocals remain half-buried in the haze of the sound and we have to work at their meaning. On a mundane level we have to work to properly discern them from the bottom of the mix and then we have to work to make a consideration of their meaning from Morris’s poetic, even remote, meanderings. While specific narratives may resist detection the overall feeling we get is of a sense of curiosity or bewilderment tempered by themes of separation, loss and a pervasive yet subjective unease.
‘Indivisibility’ is a case in point, which allows us to experience all this in a 4:53 snapshot. It wanders into view, rubbing its eyes like it has just woken from a deep sleep, with hesitant guitar, minimal keyboard dustings and Fernandes’ violin scrapes building over a long, Skip Spence or Silver Jews like intro. Eventually Morris’ barely there vocal arrives and he seems to acknowledge the half-formed shape of the song in its opening lines: “I don’t mind looking lost, don’t care when my dreams get crossed”. The melody that finally emerges, blinking into the daylight as the song approaches its final coda serves to highlight both Morris’s mercurial way with a tune and his proclivity to disdain such tunes at the expense of mood and shimmer. In his explanation of the song Morris suggests it recognises that “There’s a loss of gravity. The furniture is floating like a symphony in the air, ready to go out into the world” a weirdly appropriate summation of the experience of listening.
Ambient country may be the latest ‘sub-genre’ for Americana to contend with and while ‘Slow Funeral’ never claims to exist in the same playground as Suss, Chuck Johnson, Balmorhea or Hank & Slim it does offer some of the same resonances as music by these artists. That ‘Slow Funeral’ almost hits the touchpoints of what’s ‘happening’ in country music right now is not surprising given Morris’ label, his background and the scene he knocks around with. Whilst his record is most decidedly not an ambient country one it does reflect and contribute to the subtle genre shift currently being experienced; what Zoe Burke of Buck Young identifies as a “genre-bending reinvigorating cataclysm”. There is much to like here but also much work to be done, for Morris to forge a strong identity for himself and to craft a record that speaks to an audience in more than half heard whispers. It’s good that ‘Slow Funeral‘ engages with this movement, challenging just what we expect (accept) from Americana music and that is to be welcomed. It does this OK but it could, and Morris undoubtedly will in future, do it better.