J/B/M’s “Stray Ashes”
“Stray Ashes is not for the light of heart or those afraid of the contents of Marchant’s heart and soul laid bare.” -CBCameron Barham
out of 10
May 22, 2012
“Winter Mask” by Allen Tate
“Towards nightfall when the wind
Tries the eaves and casements
(A winter wind of the mind
Long gathering its will)
I lay the mind’s contents
Bare, as upon a table,
And ask, in a time of war,
Whether there is still
To a mind frivolously dull
Anything worth living for.”
from Poems 1922-1947
The muted and hushed tones of winter beckon one of two responses: either for the bold to lean in and drink deep of all that has been laid bare or for the light of heart to recoil from the sobering starkness seeking solace in brighter terrains. This is the tonal effect of J/B/M’s second studio release, Stray Ashes, a significant artistic progression from his first release Not Even in July. Almost every aspect of this album challenges the listener to lean in close and feel the haunting emotions that drift in and out of the songs that comprise a work that is both sorrow-filled and beautiful all at once. Stray Ashes is a finely crafted work of art that satisfyingly taps deep the melancholy vein.
J/B/M (which stands for Jesse Bryan Marchant, a native of Montreal who sang and played piano and guitar and produced the record) chose the winterscapes of a cabin in the Catskills Mountains to record much of the musical composition for Stray Ashes while leaving the lyrics and vocals for the cold confines of the city. Some additional studio work was finished at two different studios in Texas. The wintery environment was powerfully wed to the content of the record. The muted quality of much of the vocals and the mix of hushed and periodic stark tones of the production perfectly suit the dark emotive thread that holds the whole album together. Each composition is a piece of poetic prose without the hint of a chorus signaling that these songs are to be felt not just sung mindlessly from a distance. The lyrics are provided with the CD and LP and are well-worth engaging as you wander the lonely paths with Marchant on Stray Ashes.
The album opens with “Ferry” in which Marchant laments: “Given all I can, For the last time, Find an easier branch, To hang your heart around, What are you standing there, Waiting for?, Given all your life plans, You should feel assured” before concluding: “Didn’t it fail at the start line?, Don’t we happen of the same kind?, Build your home on another fault line, And deal with your ashes there, and I’ll here deal with mine.” The lyrics are brilliantly framed with subtle but ominous guitar work chased about at times by a drum loop of toms and accented by shaker mid-song. “Only Now” follows with an urgent, piano-driven tempo that picks up various musical layers along the way before crashing into the crescendo after the third verse in which Marchant cries out: “Mother, is this how we lie?, Alone in our frozen beds, I am only now, And a long way out, Don’t you feel it now more than ever?” before stripping bare with pedal steel for the conclusion of the song.
Marchant grows more somber and reflective on “You Always Keep Around” in which he observes: “The years have piled on, What feeling there is left, With all your running way, My faith has lost its health, But in your time you’ll know, Who fell away, The account recalled the other way, The fall of night, You left me there to stray”. He continues on with “Winter Ghosts” in which he recounts with vocal longing: “Winter came as a load, Frozen down to the bone, I lived here half asleep, Walking nights to the road, Empty, drunk and alone, In hopes you’d come to me, Before the morning, Before you’re running, But why are you running?, Where are you running?, Home?”.
Stray Ashes reaches its most interesting musical territory with “Forests”, a stream of conscious piece that still seems to mean something in its imaged depths over a waltzing bass line as it dances with the various echoes of guitar and EBow. “Thames” follows with Marchant pouring himself over the piano keys as he declares: “Try to keep it in the dark, That we’re living without meaning, Didn’t I try like a fool, There ain’t no counting on you” before breaking out dynamically into “You’ve come a long way not to feel, You’ve come a long way not to feel, You’ve come a long way not to feel, We’ve come a long way, not for real.”
“Moonwatcher”, the most basic, straight-forward song on the record, gives way to the most positive note struck in the alt-country “Crooked Branches” in which Marchant reflects: “In your life gone ablaze, He held you high out of the flames, Heaven knows you’ve seen, The worst of things, But in his eyes the calm awakes, In you the child who lost its way, To sail you from, Growing up sea of pain, And I swear it when you smile, That you still look like a child to me.” Joe Butcher’s pedal steel work beautifully drifts in and out of the background of the song.
The album comes to a subdued close with “On Fire On a Tightrope”, a spare piece in which Marchant sounds most like Will Johnson (a compliment from my perspective) as he wearily asks: “In the hope to find a way, Did I become inane?”, and “Keeping Up” which features a series of vivid metaphors over muffled minor piano chords and floor tom that builds in tension until it gives way to crashing cymbals, bass drum, and snare as Marchant concludes: “Crawl through my window, With your heart tied to a stick, Come out with it once, I’m afraid I can’t afford to wait.”
Stray Ashes is not for the light of heart or those afraid of the contents of Marchant’s heart and soul laid bare. While I know not everyone will connect with the depth and weight of this record, those who do will return to it again and again finding some strange solace in its foggy shadows and haunting reverberations.