You may know the name from Child Ballads, the album he made with Anais Mitchell back in 2014, while he’s also recorded with the likes of Session Americana, Laura Cortese and Sarah Jarosz, who, along with Hannah Read, provides harmonies. This, though, is the Brooklyn-based songwriter’s solo debut, a collection of ballads built around acoustic and electric guitars, fleshed out with drums, bass woodwind, strings and pump organ, variously written between 2006 and 2017, and graced with a cover photograph of his late grandmother riding a single chairlift in 1954 Wyoming.
Rooted in California, it opens with the title track, initially suggesting a post break-up lament about being rootless since things fell apart (“I haven’t had a place since Alameda moved away/I’ve got nowhere to go/I’ve got nowhere to stay”) but, beyond that, it addresses deeper concerns of unemployment through the failure of the crops, of itinerant workers being moved on by the police and of how “It’s dangerous in the open/It’s hard to trust your friends”.
Lives in transit are also at the heart of 2008-dated ‘Moving Day’, sung in a dusty whine with brushed drums and harmonica driving along a Guthrie-esque number about a family moving home and starting a new life, taking with them only the things that matter (“for a long hot two day drive/With nothing but each other”) to an uncertain future. The core theme continues on the CS&N Laurel Canyon chug of ‘Vagabond’ with its images of migration and displacement, Jarosz and Read on backing and Alec Spiegelman colouring the track with bass clarinet and alto flute.
The lengthiest track at almost six minutes, featuring whistle solo from Tim Britton, ‘Busker’ is a fingerpicked portrait of a handful of street performers and how music joins them together so that “the bright dream does not vanish” before it heads back on the road for ‘Champlain’. Heading out from Vermont in the summer of 2001 to chase the northern sun down highway 59, he’s befriended by a singer from Lake Champlain looking to make her name and, romance blossoming, they head off on tour to California and into Washington to the strains of Stan Rogers before, ten thousand miles later, “late night in the guest house she packed up in a rush” as things come to a personal and professional end.
However, as several songs suggest, it’s taking the chance that matters most, of following a dream wherever and however it may end, a conviction that underpins ‘Vision’ with its puttering drums, electric guitars and echoes of a cross between Lennon and early Neil Young as he sings “Every day has been in preparation/Your lifetime is about to begin” and how, while “No one will keep your candle burning/Brighter than you can”, he and other friends are there to “help you paint your portrait”. At times, it’s almost like a father’s words to a child.
Drawing on traditional folk flavours, etched on electric guitar filigrees, ‘The Man In Love With Everyone’ has a more downbeat tenor, the singer cautioning that the people pleaser the girl he loves is seeing may just flatter to deceive, although there’s also a suggestion of jealous obsession and perhaps even stalker tendencies simmering below the surface.
Featuring a la la la refrain evoking a similar Eastern European traditional folk backdrop as ‘Those Were The Days’ as well as a fairy tale reference to Rapunzel in her tower, it ends with the undulating rhythms and softly sung Youngian tenor resonances of ‘Wolves’, again with a lyric about making choices between those who wish you well and those who will do you wrong and again with a slightly unsettling undercurrent in “I’ve waited weeks now at the bottom of your stairs… unbolt the door/And choose the one you most adore”.
Addressing those in the fringes of society, it’s a darker album than it might initially appear, underling the subtlety and sophistication of his writing and, now that he’s stepped into the spotlight, surely destined to ensure he stays there.
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Artist’s website: www.jeffersonhamer.com
‘Champlain’ – live and solo: