IT’S A SHAME that “Luck in the Valley” will be so intricately tied to Jack Rose’s death, since it’s a beautiful album that shouldn’t have to seem like a eulogy to the late guitarist. But the story is there: Rose died of a heart attack in early December, at the age of 38, not long after he’d signed with Thrill Jockey. The possibilities for reading tragedy into this situation are endless: it could’ve been his big break! Thrill Jockey would’ve exposed him to much bigger audiences than ever before! and so on.
But all that does is dilute the focus from the loveliness of “Luck in the Valley.” This might not be Rose’s best album (that would probably be 2005′s “Kensington Blues“), but it’s certainly a great one: Rose’s finger-picked Americana is reminiscent of both the mood behind the psychedelic drones of his old band Pelt and the folksy experimental style of guitarist John Fahey.
Rose certainly picked illustrious musicians to cover here — “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy and “King of Ragtime Guitar” Blind Blake — but his original compositions are just as compelling as his re-interpretations. The six-minute “Tree in the Valley” is a haunting solo performance that blends both precise melodies and blurry drones. But more often, Rose collaborates with others: Harmonica Dan adds a mournful wail over the otherwise lively “When Tailgate Drops, the Bullshit Stops,” and Glenn Jones’s banjo helps the twangy “Moon in the Gutter” stand out on an otherwise bluesy album.
About two minutes in to the album’s final song, a cover of Blind Blake’s “West Coast Blues,” there’s a barely-audible “Whoo!” right as the song is escalating to its final climax. It’s impossible to tell if that’s Rose himself or one of the song’s other players, but the exclamation so captures the energy and essence of Rose’s music. It’s easy to imagine him so lost in the song’s intricacy and swing that he erupts into an insuppressible yelp; the song is so vivacious that it literally bubbles over with energy.
Part of that liveliness comes because the album was recorded live, which gives this folksy music a certain organic feel. But mostly, the energy behind “Luck in the Valley” all emanates from Rose himself: you can almost see his fingers flying across his guitar strings. He was an unassuming player and never seemed to show much outward energy. But he never needed to; the energy resonates from within his melodies and his songs, giving “Luck in the Valley” a radiance that far overshadows his death, instead of the other way around.
Written by Express contributor Catherine Lewis
Photo courtesy Thrill Jockey