Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Jackson C Frank

With a life as tragic as any bluesman, Jackson C. Frank wrote songs laced with melancholy and pathos, and the best of these ("Blues Run the Game," "My Name Is Carnival," "Halloween Is Black as Night") are striking in their resignation and their acceptance of the dark turns of fate. Badly burned as a teenager in a school fire, Frank learned to play guitar during his lengthy stay in the hospital, and when a considerable insurance settlement from the accident rolled in, he departed for England, landing there in 1965 in the midst of the British folk revival, where he influenced (and was influenced by) an impressive list of musicians, including Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Sandy Denny, and another expatriate, Paul Simon. Simon produced Frank's first and only album, Blues Run the Game, named after Frank's most enduring song. Recordings for a second album faltered, and Frank returned to the States, where the inability to escape his childhood scars led to mental illness and a downward spiral that ended in homelessness and a life on the streets of New York. Jim Abbott, an admirer of Frank's small body of work, rediscovered the singer in the early '90s, and steered him through a series of demo recordings of newer material, which makes up most of the second disc here. While it would be tempting to say that these new songs were a glorious return to form, they aren't, except for the brilliant despondency of "Halloween Is Black as Night," which sounds like a lost Leonard Cohen song, only much darker and more desperate than Cohen has ever been. This two-disc retrospective includes the entire Blues Run the Game album and seven songs recorded for the aborted second album, eight previously unreleased recordings from the mid-'70s, and six songs from a failed studio project in 1994, and it closes with a series of kitchen recordings done in 1997, just prior to Frank's death in 1999. All of this makes for some pretty bleak listening, and the sustained melancholy is difficult to take in one sitting, but the best of Frank's songs are such haunted black-hole laments that they are impossible to ignore.

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