Back To My Green (Blue Rose Records)
Jess Klein has taken on the hardest job with this album – no, I don’t mean finding a path between folk, country and that hard to pin down “Americana” thing; she had already nailed that.
This job is harder than being the cheery optimist pretending the world isn’t going to shit around us, from the white house to the outhouse, because jesus h christ can’t we have something good for just a minute and maybe laugh?
Harder than being the angry teller of truths who wonders what it will take for the rest of us to realise a coterie of entitled men - cocooned in their wealth, fattened on our labours, soaking in our tears - have so royally rooted us that racism, sexism, religion and greed won’t get a chance to finish us because nature is coming hot and hard first.
What Klein has done instead is look for some kind of peace while not letting pass the aggravation; accept joy without shedding all anger; be strong – and stronger – without using that as a cudgel. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that there is anything easy in that balancing act.
Back To My Green is both literally (since her last record, Klein has moved from the drier, redder, Austin, Texas, to her wetter, greener, new home of Hillsborough, North Carolina) and figuratively (in that same period she’s married, cleared away from an incipient “black dog”, and had to deal with an injury which threatened her career), an album of finding equanimity.
It begins with the country soul shuffle of In Dreams, an unabashed declaration to her husband, guitarist (and quiet star of this album), Mike June, that what they have is the greatest counter to despair; and ends with the pedal steel-fringed, last song of the night, I Hear Love, which is the prayer that there is a way to live right now that offers hope.
And in between it presents arguments for this claim, for the possibly outlandish but firmly held view presented in the easy country waltz of Kid that even if the shit comes tumbling down on you, “there’s no way around the beat of your heart/Listen to, follow its sound/It’ll pull you back up kid”.
In the spry Mammal - which begins as the Indigo Girls and, after busting out some doop-de-doos, aaahs, and back-in-the-mix guitar curls from June, leans into some Bonnie Raitt swing – Klein declares that while “I’ve known my share of pain/And felt the shame turning me dead inside”, and even as she recognises the truth of a world “so ruthless and powerful”, she won’t sink so low: “I’m better at breathing.”
That breathing is deep within the acoustic pop pull of the title track, the imagery of hot afternoons and breezes through the pines filling her with the notion that she is “free to believe that love and beauty can win in our time”. And the exhalation is gentle and warm in the rustic Jackie DeShannon of For The Girls, where even as she acknowledges her lack of certainty she draws comfort and strength from “the girls who lounge around like Venus/Knowing how to let the apple fall” and “the boys singing songs so tender/Songs that call from high above the noise”.
Back To My Green, however, is not just an escape to rural idyll, a chance to hide from the outside, to hide from the truth. Nor even to hide from the anger like that captured in the rural blues of Gates Of Hell, a place where the protagonist declares “I’d rather meet the devil than to stay here in this crazy circus town” and you aren’t sure if she means this town or this country.
New Thanksgiving Feast, a tale told as a bare folk song of many verses and few choruses, has the all-embracing sweetness of the family gathering much loved by generations of myth-makers: from football and feasting to multi-generation closeness. There is none more American.
But in its comparison of immigrants past and present, of people escaping the pogroms and holocausts of eastern Europe (like her grandparents) and the famines of Ireland, the native Americans whose names were appropriated as they were slaughtered and the chained slaves dragged unwillingly to the new world, the footballers taking a knee and the anti-fascists standing up to the nazis in Charlotte, Klein makes the “other” something more than an identikit subsumed into those myths.
The earth-gouging/life-destroying mining companies and their better suit-wearing corporate cousins are not excused either. In the indie rock-meets-country Blair Mountain, even before the guitar scores marks on the pasty flesh, Klein has detailed the mountain tops removed, the rivers blackened, the lungs ruined, and the many who worked to do just that and still find themselves stuck in crushing poverty.
If you’re not getting angry, you’re not paying attention. Yet, for all of that, Klein (whose half church/half front parlour voice is the kind of joy that works as ultimate comfort) won’t let go of the idea that surrender isn’t the right option.
As she says in Tougher Than I Seem, a song which has echoes of Shootout In The Candy Shop a tough little track from her still-brilliant 2005 album Strawberry Lover, “And when you see me crying, it’s just my vision coming clean/And when you see me smiling, I’m smiling cause I’m seeing a vision like the world has never seen.”