Jolene – After The Dazzle Of Day
For the first half of this decade, the three-night North Carolina Music Showcase was a fairly big deal, a chance for bands who weren’t part of Chapel Hill’s Next Big Thing un-scene to play a 30-minute set for a guaranteed big crowd and a judges panel staffed with state-level luminaries. A few Showcase graduates have managed to stay together and move on up (the Backsliders, Southern Culture On The Skids and Ben Folds Five all seem to be doing okay for themselves); however, the musical lifespan of most participants averaged roughly two years, with a locally produced EP or CD left as a legacy if a few things fell into place.
Hardsoul Poets, a guitar-rock quartet based in Charlotte, were veterans of three NC Music Showcases — that attendance record alone puts them near the top of the longevity curve — and although they never really moved much beyond “regional band” status, they did provide the most enduring memory of my three Showcase visits. One year, the band opened its set with their frontman onstage alone with a mandolin, belting out a convincing cover of A.P. Carter’s “No Depression In Heaven”. Having just bought Uncle Tupelo’s debut (like many folks, I first knew “No Depression” as an Uncle Tupelo song and then as a Carter Family classic), it was nice enough just to find a fellow traveler. Add to this the fact that the Showcase always leaned toward heavy metal and funk-rock acts, and Hardsoul Poets’ one-man acoustic, rootsy prologue became even more memorable. Hell, it bordered on revolutionary.
Hardsoul Poets have been history for a while, gone the way of fellow Showcasers such as Billyclub Fest and God’s Water — not to mention the Showcase itself — but 75 percent of the band lives on in Jolene, who earned a lot of attention with their early ’96 Ardent Records debut Hell’s Half Acre. That album, coupled with a self-titled teaser EP let out of the gate a few months earlier, found Jolene playing R.E.M. to Whiskeytown’s Replacements in central North Carolina’s burgeoning “alternative country” scene, with the former’s been-around polish and crafty hooks making an interesting contrast to the latter’s on-any-given-night recklessness.
Those three Hardsoul survivors — guitarist/vocalist/chief songwriter John Crooke, bassist Mike Mitschele, and drummer Mike Kenerley (“Big Mike” and “Little Mike”, respectively, in bandspeak) — and newest Jolene addition Rodney Lanier are now gathered around two phones in Charlotte. They remember that Showcase moment, although it doesn’t seem to have made quite the imprint on them that it did on me. (Note to self: Get out more.)
“Yeah, I remember that. I remember being very moved by that song, and that record in particular. I had just bought a mandolin and was determined to learn to play it and use it to my abilities,” recalls Crooke, pausing for a self-deprecating chuckle before the word “abilities”. “But with Hardsoul, we always liked to try different things.”
Crooke and company have carried that inertia-is-bad attitude with them to Jolene. When Ardent stopped functioning as a label soon after releasing Hell’s Half Acre, the powers-that-were never actually filed for bankruptcy and still held a lien on Jolene’s publishing. “They had certain grips on our career that we had to plow through,” says Crooke at his most diplomatic, but the band did manage to work through the troubles, freeing them to sign with Sire last July. Two weeks later, they found themselves in the mountains of Quebec outside Montreal recording a new album.
In The Gloaming is a testament to the band’s willingness to try different things, as well as a ringing endorsement of the benefits of French-Canadian mountain air. In Buffalo-band terms, the record is more Tom and less Springfield, but not all that far from Grant Lee. To Crooke, “it’s a good thing for a band to move, to shift gears. Reinvent themselves and still seem familiar, a big challenge that a lot of bands don’t embrace.”
Dave Burris, guitar-playing, long-distance-commuting fifth member of Jolene and Crooke’s first cousin, says a roster shift also contributed to the challenge. “Bill Ladd, who left the band, had a major impact on the roots aspect,” explains Burris from his home in New York City. “The essence of the songs aren’t that different, but the realization is. The onus was on John and me more [on the new album]; we had to be more inventive. Where previously we’d insert a pedal steel line, we had to come up with something else.” (Ladd, who played pedal steel in both Jolene and an embryonic version of Two Dollar Pistols, now is in the Wilmington, N.C. outfit the Burnley Brothers.)
So was this shift in sound a conscious decision or an unconscious result of the lineup change? Were they making a statement, or just making music? “It was planned, to a point,” Crooke says. “Let’s not necessarily do what we’ve done. We didn’t use some of those things [from the previous albums], but we did use elements. We didn’t use fiddles, but we did use interesting string arrangements. We didn’t use pedal steel, but we used lap steel. The lap steel cried more, which was more in line with the record…Dave used an e-bow a lot instead of conventional solos. So he twists it; he’s thinking, ‘What can I do to be interesting?'”
The two songs that would be most at home on Hell’s Half Acre — in fact, maybe the only two that would feel comfortable there at all — are the first single “Pensacola” and “Pull the Weight, Virginia (Innocent Lucille)”. The latter features the recurring line, “In a kinder, gentler time,” and, true to that sentiment, it signals the beginning of the album’s comparatively quiet closing quarter. “We’re definitely taking a breath,” is how Crooke puts it, and a deep one is definitely in order on the heels of the gripping, lengthy “16c”, which lures you mid-song into a thicket of guitar snarl, and a nearly abrasive thumper called “Star Town”.