By Eryn Brothers, Contributing Writer
First things first:, Jake Blount is not just a musician. He is a storyteller, an activist, a historian. On his first full length solo album, “Spider Tales,” Blount flaunts his deep passion and knowledge (a credo spanning from The Smithsonian to Yale, to being the first Black person to reach the finals at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival) while exploring the extensive yarns of Black voices and LGBTQ+ narratives.
Blount does this masterfully. At some points meditative, at some points fiery and primed to pounce, the songs run from caustic to a splendor of intrinsic percussion, perfectly recorded fiddle,and gentle harmonies that weave as one with Blount’s roguishly lush voice. But there’s nothing soft about this work. The rhythms pound and undulate, wind, crack, turn. This makes “Spider Tales” almost conspiratorial; at certain points it sounds like a ghost story whispered over dying fires, meandering and twisted. The queer lens on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” is delicious; heartbreaking (an actual feat considering it is one of the most famous murder ballads of all time) while still maintaining its sinister gaze. From the traditional (“Honey You Call That Gone,” an instrumental by Lucius Smith that starts the album) to the obscure (“Move, Daniel,” a song of the Gullah Geechee), “Spider Tales” reminds us of all the roots that wind and crook underneath the same tree. It reminds us of where these roots came from.
The restraint and the unleashing in each song, like some unknown dance written deep in our skulls, burns on this bad boy. This is no surprise given Blount’s own musical talents, backed by a herd of seasoned peers. Toe tapping and shuffling provided by Nic Garess punctuate the slanted rhythms, and the notable Tatiana Hargreaves, Rachel Eddy, and Haselden Ciacco join in the thrum. The push-me pull-you of each vivid instrument is so masterfully played and recorded that the listener leaves “Spider Tales” a little breathless with its modality and odd metered self. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment for a first full length album to create something so gnarled and refined, so thematic and dark, so raucous and tantalizing.
The “Spider Tales” name harkens back to Anansi, the Akan folkloric character most often known as a trickster. Anansi represents a grand oral African American history, the elegance of language, the stories we tell, and the turns of phrase that unify. This elegance and message is not lost in this tapestry of an album. To speak of Jake Blount’s music, one also has to make clear how important his work is at breaking down the extremely contradictory ideologies that pervade the public perception of folk music. Blount takes the uninformed paradigm of whiteness being the initial creator of traditional music, and makes sure to remind us that these histories would be nothing without Black musicians. “Spider Tales” is not just the unpacking of timelines: it also demands us to inspect the crooked truths that haunt us. It demands that we face our complications and cruelties, to awaken the voices forgotten or silenced.
If you are inclined to think of the timely nature of this album in 2020, you would be right, but you would also be missing the point. We are lucky to have Jake Blount beguiling us with his sharp mind matched with his supple vocals, allowing us to share this space of electric radicalism. We are lucky to have “Spider Tales” in its emboldened cry for revolution with its roots cracking the earth around, saying, “I have been here, I will be here, and I will continue to grow.”