Bert Jansch

The Black Swan

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Now this really is a switch: Scottish guitar hero and songwriter Bert Jansch (Pentangle) recording for Drag City, with a host of admirers in tow -- Beth Orton, Devendra Banhart, Noah Georgeson (who performed and co-produced with Jansch), Helena Espvall, son Adam Jansch, and more. Black Swan is a collection of original and traditional tunes. Jansch turns in a performance that shows his typical restraint, and within it his wonder as a guitarist. His use of the blues, American, Celtic, and British Isles folk forms is also informed by music from Eastern Europe, and he ties them all together seamlessly. "High Days," a solo track, uses all three, as he winds out an elegy for a friend. "When the Sun Comes Up" begins with Orton's vocal and David Roback's slide guitar and Otto Hauser's drums, shuffling underneath. Jansch spills it modal and bluesy, Orton grabs onto his changes and effortlessly lets her voice wrap around his lyric lines. Her signing on the traditional number "Katie Cruel" has been brilliantly rearranged by Jansch. Banhart sings in a muted duet with Orton, but his vocal was unnecessary. It's a spooky track that's been prepared for by the preceding cuts. The slippery Piedmont blues style Jansch tucks into his British folk on "My Pocket's Empty" is evocative of an earlier, simpler time, though as revealed by the tune, times were hard then, too. Jansch's singing is at its most expressive here; he's moaning in his reedy baritone. Orton makes one more appearance here on the gorgeous and-all-too-brief arrangement of the blues tune "Watch the Stars." Hers and Jansch's vocals take the tine out of the song's Southern American birthplace and brings it into the world, one grainy line at a time. It's a singalong blues that reveals the sheer expanse of the universe in the grain of their voices. Ultimately, this disc is not so different from Jansch's others, but it is wonderfully spirited and loose. It feels live, and backroomish. It's as informal a date as one can find among superstars -- and make no mistake, you may or may not know his name, but his large catalog proves it -- Jansch is one. As for the rest, the hardscrabble dirty, slide guitar-drenched English folk of "A Woman Like You" rings as true as a Texas blues love song by Lightnin' Hopkins. Traditional public domain nuggets such as "The Old Triangle" are almost radically reworked and ring spookily true for the current era. The blues-rock of the humorously political "Texas Cowboy Blues," complete with keyboards and popping acoustic 12-strings, shimmies and even shakes in places. The last few cuts, a gorgeous instrumental called "Magdalina's Dance," and "Hey Pretty Girl" (performed solo), are drenched in historical tropes, but are thoroughly modern and soulful. The bottom line is this: for the past ten years Jansch has been undergoing a creative renaissance akin to Bob Dylan's and people are slowly but surely finding what he has on offer. Black Swan proves that the guitarist and songwriter has a bounty at his disposal. He is writing and recording music that is profound, funny, topical, worldly, and ultimately, necessary.

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