By Eleni P. Austin
There’s something magical and mercurial about Jonathan Wilson’s music. The cognoscenti picked up on his genius almost immediately. It took the rest of the world some time to catch on, but for the last dozen years, he has cultivated a passionate fanbase.
Armed with a record deal with a major label, Jonathan arrived in Los Angeles 25 years ago. The North Carolina native, along with his hometown pal, Benji Hughes had formed the band Muscadine. Once in L.A., they recorded their debut, The Ballad Of Hope Nicholls, and it went nowhere. Benji quit the band. Jonathan relocated to Georgia and then New York before returning to L.A. and securing a spot for himself in the thriving musical melting pot.
Landing in the storied enclave of Laurel Canyon, he began collecting vintage analog recording gear and set up his own recording studio. He quickly made a name for himself as a session musician, engineer and producer. Soon enough he was working on albums by up-and-comers like Jenny Lewis and superstars like Erykah Badu and Elvis Costello.
In the ‘60s, Laurel Canyon was home to legends like Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons, as well as assorted Byrds and Monkees. Jonathan added to that history when he began hosting informal jam sessions at his place every Wednesday. The weekly get-togethers attracted members of Wilco, The Jayhawks, the Wallflowers, Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, as well as Canyon OGs like Jackson Browne and Graham Nash.
In between production commitments, Jonathan recorded a solo debut, Frankie Ray, that he burned onto blank CDs and gave away to friends and family. His official long-player, Gentle Spirit found a home on the Bella Union label and was released in 2011. Music writers leaned in, critical acclaim was instantaneous and rapturous. His sound split the difference between the rusticity of Neil Young’s Harvest and the expansive complexity of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. Tastemaker mags like Mojo and Uncut named him Best New Artist. He closed out the year with a transcendent set at Pappy & Harriet’s. (Back when playing that venue meant something)
In the ensuing years, he’s earned his keep doing production work for artists like Father John Misty, Conor Oberst, Angel Olsen, Benmont Tench, Dawes and Margo Price. He also played on Pink Floyd founder Roger Waters’ Is This The Life We Really Want album and became musical director for Roger’s subsequent tours. But most importantly, he’s released a string of excellent albums; 2013’s Fanfare which included touches of Prog-Rock and Jazz. 2018’s Rare Birds which cycled through a dizzying array of styles, from British Invasion and Glitter/Glam to Cosmic Americana, it deftly boomeranged between London and Laurel Canyon. 2020’s Dixie Blur took him back to his rural Southern roots.
Now, three years later he returns with his fifth long-player, provocatively entitled Eat The Worm. The album opens tentatively with “Marzipan.” Meandering player-piano idles atop ambient hiss, scratchy guitars and brushed percussion. Much like Robert Johnson, Jonathan has ramblin’ on his mind, as he name-checks lasting musical influences; “Hank Williams and Folk music had sort of changed me, well, I threw me into the deep end, and to be honest, it felt like…Rock & Roll was gone, like I had moved on…to Ray Acuff and Chet Atkins’ sacred arboretum, it was a Rock & Roll crematorium, and Jazz was there too, in fact, Jazz was there all along.” Two minutes in, he inserts a twinkly synth interlude, summoning (for this listener anyway) the time dissolve sounds Wayne and Garth would verbally employ to signify a scene shift. But then it’s back to business with the original arrangement. He still finds time to shit-talk certain musical contemporaries (they’re not worthy): “I knew these no-playing motherfuckers were not brothers of mine, more were they sisters divine, no, they were chat-room, AOL’ing, truffle-shaving eBay-scamming freaks, with gear on the brain, I know it sounds insane, but these people got paid to play.” But his indignation quickly recedes as ethereal strings and plangent horns cocoon the remainder of the song, kicking it into a cinematic stratosphere as he continues to wax rhapsodic and randomly blah-blah-blah.
Even when a song title invokes an actual person, that doesn’t necessarily mean Jonathan has written a musical hagiography. Take “Wim Hof,” a click-track beat threads through a lush, Tropicalia-flavored tapestry featuring lilting, Latin guitars, gamboling bass mercurial keys and breathy harmonies. Cryptic lyrics chronicle narcoticized, albeit spiritual, encounters with music producer Daniel Lanois; “We were tan we were young, we were free, we were harvesting adrenochrome from forward thinkers, spaced out cadavers, eating pulled pork from the rainbow children.” As hedonism and asceticism collide the instrumentation maintains a fluid pulse; “In a mountain-top plunge pool of ill-repute, I hung out with Wim Hof, in a puffy, painted sharkskin suit, till suddenly, we were both working with inertia, like two river boat gamblers playing roulette with our lives, wearing shorts on the ice, ‘Fuck it!’ we always seemed to say.” Equal parts hypnotic and alluring.
Meanwhile, “Charlie Parker” is a potent combo-platter of airy, Doo-Wop flavored vocals and a sharp arrangement that drafts off a Henry Mancini-style elegance. And, oh yeah, the title references the legendary Jazz saxophonist. There’s a lazy drawl to Jonathan’s vocal delivery which is matched by see-saw guitars, agile bass, fluid keys and a kick-turn beat. The nuanced narrative finds our hero plummeting down a rabbit-hole of sybaritic pursuits, but finding inspiradio; “I wrestled with substance, I struggled for fame, but I came back singing this melody…. see, a dream, if just an ignition point, causing quite a spark, lighting up the joint, can I get a witness now, can anybody show me how.” Lowing cello and swoony strings flutter and ache on the break, as if to summon real (and imaginary) influences; “And just then Kurt Elling and Al Jarreau came singing in fourths, modulating in tongues they asked me to join in I feigned no reply, but I leaned over and scatted Charlie Parker’s lullaby.” Damned if a note-perfect, acrobatic sax solo isn’t unleashed. A stratospheric guitar solo and final sax break, painterly piano and shadowy strings shudder the song to a close.
In an album stacked with superlative tracks, the best songs hopscotch through the album, beginning with “Ol’ Father Time.” Shimmery harpsichord notes and ambient noise gives way to sun-dappled acoustic guitars, wah-wah electric riffs, pastoral keys, lithe bass and a clickity-clack beat. Somewhere burrowed in this sylvan soundscape is a bit of an eco-warrior rant; “There’s a funk in the river, it’s carried people, food and culture, throughout all time, it has to do with water and how it’s the third most abundant molecule in the universe, behind molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide.” As the song winds down, time-signatures shift and lock into a Jazzy interlude, all sidewinding horns, thwocking, shuffle-rhythms and slinky guitars that lean in a concentric, Quincy Jones-y direction.
Drifting even further out of his comfort zone is “The Village Is Dead.” The song positively leaps out of the speakers, mining that creamy Philadelphia International sound that originated in the early ‘70s with producers/collaborators Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff and Thom Bell. Velvety strings bob and weave between expansive horns, propulsive piano and a four-on-the-floor Disco beat. Juxtaposed with this shiny, happy, irresistible melodicism are snarky lyrics that bemoan the lack of a Folk music scene that originally thrived in New York’s Greenwich Village; “There’s nothing doing anymore on MacDougal Street, just shit tons of bros from the local university, I’m listening to these zoomers play, down in the basement of Café Wha?, they’re trying to make it sound like Stevie Ray, and then they set fire to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, and can we finally sing it all together: The Village is dead.”
If Nick Drake and Don Rickles ever collaborated on a song, it might turn out like “Low And Behold.” Initially, bare-bone baritone guitar notes (soclose the listener hears fingers on frets), are his lone accompaniment. Jonathan starts things off by counting his blessings; “Low and behold, by the grace of God, I am not in debt, nor am I owed, never bought, never sold, I am an island, I define success as never having to be told jack shit again.” Rather than remain, (to paraphrase the great smooth Soul philosopher, William DeVaughan) “Thankful for what he got,” as the instrumentation builds, layering in a swirly string section, as he throws some serious shade at fellow musicians; “…Any Psychedelic luddite can croon, and any god-fearing crudite’ can swoon while they gaslight fickle monopoly, then they go and cash a little check from the Jam Band Cruise.” His gentle spirit seems to have transubstantiated into a wickedly witty wraith.
Meanwhile, he plays nice on “Hey Love,” a nimble encomium in ¾ time. The softer side of JW is anchored by a ramshackle beat, quiescent keys and fluttery guitars as he offers this playful benediction; “And we smile because we know that tomorrow, we’ll be seeing one and other again, in a world full of bullshit and sorrow, may it never end…and I love getting to know you more dearly, because with you, I am spending my life, and I treasure your vision so dearly, oh look, I’m tearing up.”
Finally, he reserves his most bilious behavior for “B.F.F.” The acronymous title doesn’t mean something benign like “best friend forever,” instead, it refers to the “big fish fry,” a Jonathan-ism that takes aim at culture wars, poseurs, consumerism, as well as his own hypocrisy and loss of innocence. The song’s willowy melody is anchored by mewling horns, modal guitars, slippery keys, thrumming bass and a loping, clip-clop beat. The gossamer arrangement couples buttery Burt Bacharach ache to the laid-back Surfer Soul of Dennis Wilson. It’s shadowy beauty nearly camouflages his vitriolic asides; “Hardly anyone here wants run anymore, they’re all red-pilled, caught up in a globalist lie, to try and then buy a bunch of plastic bullshit and then die, I compare it humorously in my mind to a giant fish fry/Oh yeah, I’m back on my bullshit, I’m feeling myself, I’m high on my own supply, I stay up all night long smoking dope and writing songs, I guess it’s really just a case of do or die…so bring me the head of John Mayer and all the other Jerry Imposters, in their online designer tie-dye, sure, I’ll Paypal $160. for the nonexistent counter-culture hoodie, let’s turn this whole fucking fake shakedown into a real fish fry.”
Other interesting tracks include the fuzzy rat-a-tat-tat of “Bonamossa,” the shapeshifter angst of “Hollywood Vape” and the politically charged “Stud Ram,” which targets a twice-impeached Cheeto-hued Mar-A-Largo resident with this trenchant verse; “A stud ram is coming, just gather round and see, he’s going to fuck the whole world with his evil and greed, he’s made his reservation for a big night on the town, when he pits us all against us and fucks us in the mouth, but not you and me, no, not you and me, right?”
The album closes with the feather-light grace of “East L.A.” and “Ridin’ In A Jag.” The former is a tender piano ballad that echoes Laurel Canyon antecedents like Jackson Browne and the late, great Warren Zevon. The poignant melody and ecclesiastic harmonies nearly belie scabrous lyrics like “Now a gentrified breeze, I can see has blown in some fake freaks and a few hipster stores, and a few cute little whores, who on rubber-bridged guitars are serenading every bullshit writing session in Los Angeles.” Jonathan can never resist the urge to dirty up the pretty.
The latter is a jaunty invitation to roam, accented by echoey timpani breaks, vroomy guitars, roiling piano, chiming harpsichord, and a swaying string section. It also pays homage to the person who turned things around for him; “My life before we met had been a drag, all I did was bullshit around Babe, you could always find me after dark in Echo Park without a clue to my name/I guess I thought that douche-bagging around in the cool part of town could somehow 24 karat mint me Babe, I stepped out of the car and turned around and there you were.” It’s an insouciant end to another great record.
It’s easier to say Jonathan played nearly everything here, then to list every instrument. He was ably abetted by Jake Blanton, Drew Erickson, Grant Miliken and Andrea Nakhla.
Eat The Worm is by turns cutting and sublime, caustic and inventive, hallucinogenic and enchanting. Jonathan Wilson never disappoints.