One of the highest compliments paid to Chapel Hill NC’s Jennyanykind came from an anonymous reviewer of their album, Mythic (1995),
Imagine Syd Barrett composing Astronomy Domine in the mid 90s and you’ll get an idea of what this album sounds like. For that reason, it’s an unusual record, since while most rock bands of the last few years have gone for a pumped up version of that grunge folk popularized by folks like Mark Lanegan, Thin White Rope, and the Meat Puppets, Jennanykind have honed in on the stylistic nuances of bands like Barrett’s Floyd and post-Nico Velvet Underground. A subtle difference, to be sure, but one worth exploring and, done successfully as it is here, one that shows it’s possible to look back for your influences and progress musically. Great stuff.
Jennyanykind were led by twin brothers Mark and Michael Holland. In the early 2000’s they disbanded the group and began exploring their individual interests in roots music, with Mark working in the blues idiom while Michael veered in a bluegrass/ragtime direction. Dueling Devils brings the brothers back together, albeit on opposite sides of an imaginary vinyl recording, each with five tracks of three minutes accentuating their oblique approaches to lo-fi music.
Now, why in the devil would a fan of progressive music spend time with what seems to be its antithesis? I would suggest we reconsider what is called “roots” music on its own terms and within its cultural context. For that, we need to a take a trip to the Crossroads.
On the night of July 4, 2005, I found myself on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Tupelo, MS to Clarksdale, in the company of Jeff Spencer, himself an accomplished guitarist. The ride included a two-hour conversation about music, about Eric Clapton and fellow-Mississippian and King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor, among others. We left the “hilly country” at 7:00 pm and crossed the Tallahatchie at 8:00 (both referenced in Charley Patton’s blues masterpiece, “High Water Everywhere”) and sailed into the ironing-board flat Delta with distant shacks and brewing storm clouds on the horizon. By 9:00 we reached the Crossroads of legend, the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. I jumped out of the car just long enough to have my picture made, but once back inside we discovered mosquitoes swarming by the dashboard light. We found ourselves swatting our way out of Clarksdale.
I asked how far it was to the Dockery Plantation, where Patton and, later, a young Robert Johnson had once entertained. “That’s Ruleville,” said Jeff. “I can take you if you want to go.”
Ruleville was another 45 minutes or so out of the way, and in the pitch blackness of a rural Mississippi night there would have been nothing to see. But what I had seen was enough to establish in my mind the environment into which the bluesmen of old had emerged. To a desolate and desperate place of gang labor and shared misery these men stood out as perverse and irresistible individuals, as showmen and shamans. To a culture that moved to the rhythms of call and response, the bluesmen broke all the rules and concocted a style of performance that, to borrow a phrase from folklorist Cece Conway, was “inimitable and unapproachable.” The blues — with variations of ragtime, jazz, and gospel mixed into the musical mojo bag — was designed to never be fully replicated. This was the work of possessed individuals, griots, spell-binding artists, intent on evoking frenzy and amazement. Two generations before Hendrix, Patton was playing his elaborate syncopation behind his head. It was not popular music, strictly speaking.
To illustrate, I’ve recently been listening to “This Is a Low” from Blur’s Parklife album. It is a cultural gem, composed around a nautical map on a handkerchief and the British Shipping Forecasts. It expresses an English band’s homesickness on the road. And it is pop music to the core, with a big, stirring chorus meant to be accompanied by tens of thousands of Brits in Hyde Park, arms raised. It’s the stuff of football supporters’ cheers.
But with the blues we honestly don’t know what the actual roots sounded like. We just make out enough of Patton, or the Bentonian craftsman Skip James, through a blizzard of crackles and pops on the best digital transfers. What we should hear in those sides are works of extraordinary eclecticism. We should hear the hedges being pushed over. We should approach them the way the original listeners found them.
To revisit these idioms, as the Holland Brothers invite us to do, is to return to the beginning of a music that packed a universe of originality into sides limited by three minutes of wax space. Every slide, every pull-off, every microtonal inflection is a dare. “See if you can do this.”
Mark Holland’s songs clearly emulate Patton. Recorded in stereo, he double tracks his voice (e.g. “My Baby Say She Coming”) to get the same disquieting effect of Patton’s original recordings (did Patton have a ghost voice? were his recordings haunted by demons?). He captures the energy of the Dockery frolics of old on “Coldwater Blues,” a rounder that takes him from one end of the South to the other. “Bic Lighter” works from a minor key to tell a story of dependence, where even “light” serves the cause of darkness.
Mark’s strength, both here and with Jennyanykind, is to capture an atmosphere where the veil between the natural and supernatural is rent. Malevolent forces are at hand, but his protagonists persevere and come to a new level of understanding, often at the expense of conventional wisdom (a good example is “Clear Tone Blues” from 2003). The griot was a storehouse of tradition, but his songs often mocked the culture around him.
Michael Holland’s sides pose a different challenge, recorded as they were live, in mono. This heightens the importance of his finger-picking and phrasing (as well as harmonica and kazoo) to emulate the parts of a larger band. The playful “Dry Bones” draws from biblical characters (Enoch, Paul, Moses, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy) to show the griot’s awareness of the “light come down.” He then moves right into Charlie Poole’s rag arrangement of “Leavin’ Home,” a classic American murder ballad.
But his re-do of his own “Peas and Collards” (from an earlier album of the same title) is a swift-moving blues highlight. It’s about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day for health and wealth, made ironic by the fact that the South, for most of its history, has lagged behind most of the U.S. in both categories (the original version runs through a bitter litany of corporate interests whom “money loves”: Chase Manhattan, Exxon, the WTO, etc., but not momma or the song’s protagonist).
Whereas Mark’s sides are dark, straight-up blues, Michael’s are lighter; but both elements were found in Patton and other genre-benders from nearly a century ago.
A young Syd Barrett spent time listening to a couple of Carolina bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council. An aspiring, avant garde artist of today would do well to spend some time recovering some of the essentials with the Holland Brothers.
6 thoughts on “Back at the Crossroads: The Holland Brothers’ Dueling Devils”
This is going to sound absolutely insane, but I may have written that review. I had been listening to Mythic pretty heavily in the mid and late 90s, along with fellow Chapel Hillians’ Zen Frisbee’s “I’m as Mad as Faust” and Metal Flake Mother’s “Beyond the Java Sea” (two other dark horse entries in the punk prog NC scene — both heavily oriented towards blues though you wouldn’t always think it — MFM morphed into Squirrel Nut Zippers, who some may remember as an oldtime hot jazz band that actually had hits!). I was writing a lot of Amazon reviews at the time, and sometimes signed my name, sometimes didn’t. It sounds like me and references all the bands I was listening to, so I’m about 90% sure that one’s mine. Crazy. Love that record, and Jennanykind. I lent my copy of Mythic to someone about 10 years ago and haven’t heard it since. I was very pleased to see the Hollands are working together again. Great essay, by the way. Gets to heart of the matter, I think.
I’m absorbing your comments on Patton. His music has become more and more a part of my life over the past seven or eight years. It is mysterious and wondrous. I’m interested in your observation about his ghost vocal — there are on the one hand the phrases he quickly sing-speaks as a sort of call and response, and then there is the actual recording technique that might have created a bounce-back off the wall behind the mic. Given his powerful voice, there may have been enough air moving there to actually create a delay. Or could it be a variation of Tuvan throat singing? Then there’s Paramount’s involvement, and the fact they used cheaper stock on their “race” records.
Back to the Hollands. Downloading Dueling Devils now. It is quite awesome.
Craig — thanks so much for the observations. I need to go back and explore the other Chapel Hill artists you name above. The Mythic comments were as fine a short review as I’ve seen, and gave me a jumping off point for introducing these very eclectic artists to a wider prog audience.
As for Patton, I’m sure you’ve heard the tale that his voice could carry hundreds of feet to reach fringe listeners. His power may well have created the delay. What’s interesting (and Mark Holland, I suspect, goes for this in his overdubs) is that the “voices” seem to come in two tones, upper and lower. It could be a quirk of the cheaper stock records, but it’s unlike anything I’ve heard on other recordings from the era — including Blind Willie Johnson.
Here’s Ty Tabor (King’s X) from his Facebook page, reflecting on his early days back in Mississippi:
Bluegrass music is blues on speed. It is deep within my musical make-up. When I was a kid ‘Flatt and Scruggs’ were mainstream. [Foggy Mountain Breakdown] was one of their first hits. I played this song countless times with my Dad, my brother, and our close friends the Paces. We played bluegrass festivals and got to open for greats like Lester Flatt, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, Bill Monroe, and many others. It was a magical time.
One of my favorite movie moments of all time is in Ghost World, when Thora Birch’s character, Enid, hears Skip James sing “Devil Got My Woman”. Time stops as she goes to the turntable over and over again to listen to it. That one song cuts through all the mass-produced pop culture she had been raised and immersed in, and sets her on a quest to find the lost America, the “Ghost World” of pre-McDonalds diners, pre-WalMart stores, pre-MTV music.
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