This is a folk record, let me just get that out of the way right now. I know, I know, this is PUNKnews, but let me make some connections for you all. First, it’s on Anti-, an Epitaph offshoot, so you got that. Then you’ve got punk-folker Billy Bragg who called folk legend Woody Guthrie ‘the first punk rocker,’ and undisputedly ‘punk’ bands Anti-Flag and Dropkick Murphys who have covered Guthrie’s songs. Well, the 75-year-old Jack Elliott was mentored and befriended by Guthrie himself, and he carries on Guthrie’s style. Then there’s Elliott’s own mentee Bob Dylan, who will always be cool. Current bands who show folk music influences more so than others include Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, Wilco, the Weakerthans, Iron & Wine and Devandra Banhart. The last in that list invited Elliott to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in the U.K. earlier this year, and apparently he killed. Over the years, Elliott has shared the stage with countless acts, one notable and unexpected one being the Velvet Underground back in the Warhol era. Other important figures paying homage to the folk genre are Bruce Springsteen with his tribute to Pete Seeger (also mentored by Guthrie), and Greg Graffin with his Cold as the Clay. If any of this previous music interests you at all, the next logical step is to go straight to a more authentic source, such as Elliott (or Guthrie, Seeger, etc). While they are not considered ‘punk’ to most, as you can see by my ramblings, there can be connections made, and anyway it’s great music so who cares about the label? Onto the album.
Most of the songs on I Stand Alone are Elliott solo with guitar, and the best word to describe it would be ‘captivating.’ The music is merely support for the vocals, and Elliott’s weathered yet expressive voice will capture your attention, from the snarled yell of “Call Me a Dog” to the spoken whisper of “Woody’s Last Ride.” On the latter tune and the remainder of the songs, we find Elliott backed by a surprisingly cool group of musicians including Flea, Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney), Nels Cline (recently of Wilco), and DJ Bonebreak (X). These musicians add but never steal the show, pumping up “Driving Nails in My Coffin” and the all-too-short Leadbelly tune “Jean Harlow” while still letting Elliott’s voice shine through.
Elliott, like Seeger, is more of an interpreter of older material than a songwriter, but the covers are as good as originals to most of the readers here (myself included), since I can assume that we are not schooled in our country’s musical heritage as we should be and have never heard these songs. Picking a great set of songs, even if you didn’t write them, is a talent in itself. I’ve heard the term ‘collector’ applied to him and it fits -- he finds and preserves songs that are rarely heard or long forgotten. He turns in inspired versions of many traditional, public-domain songs as well as tunes penned by A.P. Carter, patriarch of the famous Carter Family (“Engine 143”), Hoagie Carmichael (“Hong Kong Blues”), and Ernest Tubb (“Careless Darling”) among others. He delivers one original as the album’s closer, the aforementioned “Woody’s Last Ride,” which has a different, atmospheric sound, but is equally as captivating. He speaks briefly of his last adventure with Guthrie traveling cross-country in a Buick, with their only spending money made playing music for tips in a city square -- a mere $11.44 that got them across the country.
Guthrie and Seeger delved into political and social issues often, but Elliott steers clear of all that here (perhaps a mark against my connecting him to ‘punk’), opting instead for a set of plain-spoken songs about love and life’s troubles. But like Guthrie and Seeger, who both wrote and performed children’s songs, Elliott enjoys being a bit lighthearted like on the 19-second “My Old Dog & Me” where he proclaims that his old dog "likes his meat / pork chops are a special treat." The funny and age-appropriate selection “Arthritis Blues” is my favorite track here, complete with accordion by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.
My one complaint would be how short the album is. It’s a mere 32 minutes, due to 10 of the 16 songs not hitting the 2-minute mark. There were definite possibilities for fleshing out the old tunes, especially through the use of the backup musicians. But then again, this is Elliott’s show and as it stands, you hear his voice through almost the entire album without many instrumental sections. Elliott’s voice is what makes this album great, so perhaps it’s best this way. But I still I want more.
I Stand Alone is not punk on the surface, but it can connected with some creativity. Even if you don’t agree on the connection, it’s amazing music nonetheless. This would be a great starting point for anyone interested in the history of American music, as Elliott brings a sound of the past to us. After that, you can use it as a springboard to the older music of his mentor, the artists that he covers, or countless other important artists.