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Reviews of Jefferson Pepper's American Evolution Volume 1

Pennyblack Music (UK) by Malcolm Carter

So how do you follow up a critically-acclaimed album like ‘Christmas In Fallujah’? Well, if you are the artist who created that thought-provoking collection of songs from 2005 and go by the name of Jefferson Pepper you shut yourself away in your home studio for a couple of years to create a three CD, fifty song cycle which traces the history of American culture and music.

It sounds like an ambitious task and not an easy one to tackle, but once again Pepper has, on the evidence of this first chapter which is a seventeen strong collection of songs covering the period from 1492 to 1940, shown that he is without a doubt one of America’s most talented singer-songwriters and that those early comparisons to greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young were well founded.

As with ‘Christmas In Fallujah’, which brought the once fashionable protest album kicking and screaming into the 2000's, Pepper touches again upon many musical styles throughout these seventeen songs. Pepper, along with the likes of Steve Earle, is angry with what has happened to his country and this Pennsylvanian is, at this moment in time, getting his message across in his music better than anyone else.

It’s probably not too far from the truth to state that Pepper, with this project, is going to educate far more people in the evolution of American culture and music than most schools or other establishments will. That Pepper is an exceptional lyricist is without question and he has that rare ability to get his message across simply and quickly; that he wraps these words up in melodies which are instantly accessible is another reason that his songs are so appealing but what is even more apparent on this latest collection is that even if Pepper was singing about less important or interesting matters then he could still carry it off because of his vocals.

It was something of a surprise that even on the songs on ‘Christmas In Fallujah’ that showed a vocally more aggressive Pepper like ‘M-16’ and the cover of ‘This Land Is Your Land’, that there was a mellowness to his vocals. On one hand it sounded odd; his gentle tones should be spitting out those words, on the other it worked so well. On ‘American Evolution’ Pepper’s vocals really shine and the fact that for the most part his calm vocals are carrying out such powerful messages is a major attraction in these songs. If you agree with his theories and points of view is almost irrelevant. That voice and those melodies carry the songs even without such potent lyrics.

Pepper comes across sounding like a favourite soft-spoken but knowledgeable uncle; one that because of the gentleness in his voice you feel compelled to listen to. He would appear to have it all ; warm vocals which have no idiosyncrasies about them, a gift for writing appealing melodies which cover all genres, especially on this album, (listen to ‘Riverbank Blues’ where we hear Pepper drenched in acoustic slide guitar showing a side which he didn’t reveal on his debut) and a master storyteller.

Even the two instrumentals featured on the album, ‘Appomattox’ and ‘Lewis And Clark Homecoming’ don’t feel out of place. Both are driven by mandolin, fiddle, banjo and dobro with the former celebrating the end of the American Civil War and the latter celebrating the obvious.

Far from being heavy going due to the subject matter Pepper proves that he can also inject a little lightness here and there into his lyrics. ‘Fine Fine Day’ covers the period when electricity was something new and the song starts optimistically, “ There’s a company runnin’ wires up and down my street, say they’re gonna bring good things to life with electricity”. The forthcoming thrill of having electric blankets and toothbrushes is soon diminished by the realisation that families singing together ended with the advent of electric powered radios and “some rich guys on a panel are controlling what you hear”. The song ends with the line “Now they’re building nuclear power plants for all the boys and girls, if we put the waste in boxcars they’d stretch around the world”; the joyfulness conveyed in the melody and in Pepper's vocals belying the seriousness of the lyrics.

But for those of us who buckled at the knees at the sheer beauty of ‘Why’ on Pepper’s first album be prepared for ‘Paperback Romance’ on ‘American Evolution’ to do the same job again. The touching story of young Mary Ellen who was orphaned at a young age but who against all odds found love with Billy Campbell who was “freckled and heckled and shy, he spoke with a stutter, school bullies made him cry”. The life of young Mary Ellen who never expected more from life than “a paperback romance from the second hand store” unfolds in the prettiest tune Jefferson has ever written.

‘American Evolution Volume 2’ reaches Europe on 12th May and ‘Volume 3’ arrives on 7th July. Our American cousins are treated to Pepper’s fascinating tales of ordinary working people who are the backbone of his country a month or two earlier than us. A limited edition box set of all 3 CDs will be reaching these shores in early November. If those two forthcoming albums are just half as captivating as these seventeen songs then I’ll be first in line for my copy.


Rating: * * * * (4 stars out of 5)

Jefferson Pepper has created a modern day protest album in much the same style as Bob Dylan back in the 60s. Some tunes like Riverbank Blues even without the obligatory harmonica solo still has captured the tone of Dylan’s voice and attitude. Pepper carries with him the politically charged anger of the 60s artists like Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie or Neil Young. His points about the war in Iraq strangely evoke a feeling of deja vu for those who still remember Viet Nam.

Jefferson’s writing is excellent, thought provoking and original. The point of the album is accurately expressed on the first page of his liner notes with the statement: “Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies…From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few…No nation could preserve it’s freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

–James Madison, Father of the U.S. Constitution and principal author of the Bill of Rights.

The weakest point and probably the only negative I can find in this CD is Pepper’s voice itself in the fact that he seems to be just a little soft spoken and gentle for the material he is delivering. In fact he sometimes borders on sounding like a Sesame Street Muppet but then again Dylan’s own voice was almost cartoon like on some of his greatest songs.

All considered, lyrically this could easily be one of the strongest CDs to be released in 2007.

Soundfires (UK)

Rating: * * * * (4 stars out of 5)

As music projects go, Jefferson Pepper’s latest set of releases is a magnificent achievement in concentrated yet voluminous output. American Evolution Volume 1 is part of a 50 song opus, straining across two further volumes, to be released later this year. Taking as his inspiration Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ and his own questioning mind, Jefferson discusses the rights and wrongs of contemporary and historical America over a highly competent selection of Americana inflected backing.

This first volume focuses upon 1492 -1920, reflected in the abundance of fiddles and banjos present in the mostly country and americana backing. It isn’t difficult to close your eyes at times to imagine it as the soundtrack to Woodie Guthrie and the dust bowl deserts of America. The turns of phrase are timely reminders of how socially engulfed mind sets such as Woodie's and Jefferson’s can find ordinary words to explain extraordinary events. Lyrics such as “going like a freight train, rolling down a one way track”, despite the simplistic “country” connotations, work surprisingly well as its intended indictment of modern America.

This record needs time spent upon it, a careful listen and a left-leaning belief set to truly appreciate. If there is a record which will stand the test of time and encapsulate the uneasiness with which Americans live with their own politics and religion, this should be it.

Hanx (Netherlands) by Patrick Donders

Rating: * * * 1/2 (3 1/2 stars out of 5) (Translated from Dutch)

Sufjan Stevens has a mission. He wants to tell the story of all 52 states of America. That is a life's work that he likely will never finish. He knows that himself. Jefferson Pepper’s piece d'resistance is well begun. He also wanted to tell the story of America. He names his project 'American Evolution' and it was necessary to tell this story with three cd’s.

Maybe less ambitious than Stevens but, nevertheless, an enormous chore. Volume 1 will be released in Europe on 17 March and discusses the period of 1492 until 1940. In 17 compositions, Pepper travels from the discovery of America to world War II. The Civil War hooks is the "ode" there yet good in by the Americas and Rockefellers were the most hated family from that time.

"The most hated man in America made a fortune on the Civil War."

Reproach, fear and incomprehension. How is it possible that money is earned at the expense of the dead? That is a naïve thought only in relation to war... rather, these words are cold cynicism. This bitterness stands in shrill contrast with the joy in Fine Fine Day. The electricity has its entrance and that changes the affair. Then there is well a cynical view. Cheerful Old Time-snarengepluk in a fight with a country where life looks like a sitcom. It being really the centrepieces of Volume 1 only both numbers do not make well clear what Pepper’s view is. Of quite large general sorrow to personal details, of pounding roots-rock to carefree Old Time. Thus is continued.

(Patrick Donders)

(Original Dutch text):

Sufjan Stevens heeft een missie. Hij wil het verhaal vertellen van alle 52 staten van Amerika. Dat is een levenswerk dat hij nooit af zal krijgen. Dat weet hijzelf ook. Jefferson Pepper’s piece de resistance is wel af. Ook hij wil het verhaal over Amerika vertellen. Hij noemt het American Evolution en heeft er drie cd’s voor nodig. Die zijn af. Een stuk minder ambitieus dan Stevens maar, desalniettemin, een enorm karwei. Volume 1 verschijnt op 17 maart en behandelt de periode van 1492 tot 1940. In 17 composities reist Pepper van ontdekking naar Wereldoorlog II. De Burgeroorlog hakt er nog altijd goed in bij de Amerikanen en Rockefellers is de “ode” aan de meest gehate familie uit die tijd.

"The most hated man in America made a fortune on the Civil War."

Verwijt, angst en onbegrip. Hoe is het mogelijk dat er geld verdiend wordt aan de dood? Dat is een naïeve gedachte maar ik hoor in relatie tot oorlog liever deze woorden dan koud cynisme. Deze verbittering staat in schril contrast met de vreugde in Fine Fine Day. De elektriciteit doet zijn intrede en dat verandert de zaak. Dan is er wel een cynische kijk. Vrolijk Old Time-snarengepluk in gevecht met een land waar het leven naar een sitcom kijkt. Het zijn niet echt de centrepieces van Volume 1 maar beide nummers maken wel duidelijk wat Pepper’s visie is. Van heel groot algemeen leed naar persoonlijke details, van stompende roots-rock naar frivole Old Time. Wordt dus vervolgd.

(Patrick Donders)

Luna Cafe (Norway) by Anders Svendsen

Pepper's debut album, Christmas in Fallujah, came out as a bit too ambitious, but with just as many short comings. We stated it being too plain for its own good. Talk about being ambitious: this time around, Pepper has set out on a 3-record spree, starting off with telling the story of the USA from the period 1492-1940. Well, if this sounds too much like a history class, I'm glad to report that it's not.

As opposed to his debut, this first one in his coming trilogy really manages to sit in with me and come across a lot more self-assured. Not cocky, not preaching, just a lot safer at his stand. The variety of styles and sounds are better, the lyrics and stories more convincing.

I have a thing about admiring people that set out on ambitious creative projects with a over-hanging purpose. Jefferson Pepper is truly embracing that vision. And not only that - quite unlike Sufjan Stevens - he has set the dates for releasing the follow-ups in the trilogy. I will most likely pick them up, curious about whether or not he can move this forward and keep this fine standard he has set for himself.

Copyright © 2008 Anders Svendsen

Unsportsmanlike Comment (US) by Rube Waddell

I was loitering at work a couple of weeks ago, minding my own business, not hurting any small animals or assailing lonely widows with Mitt Romney mailers. Was just surfing for meaning in the fathomless web, when the old Rube finds this shameless plea soiling his e-mail queue:

Go to this link… right now and buy as many cd’s as you can afford. If you can buy ten, awesome! If you can buy five, great! If you can buy three, cool! If you can buy one, I’ll take that too. If you can’t afford to buy one, you’re worse off than I am, so I’ll be happy to send you a copy for free. Then, if you wouldn’t mind, send this email to all your friends and folks on your mailing list. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I know you’ll come through and I really do appreciate it. …

A lot to ask? A lot to ask! He’s supposedly a friend, and he’s begging me to buy 10 of his cds? Ten? Check the link, You’ll see he’s not selling them from the remainder rack for $1.99 a crack.

Before I venture an opinion as to whether you would be victim to a snake-oil pitch if you purchase even one copy of this American Evolution disc, I must make a few things clear:

The Rube’s no record reviewer, and he’s not without conflict of interest here. Was gonna recuse myself on this one, but the damned e-mail got my dander up.

You see, i’ve known this Jefferson Pepper rogue for a few years. Seen him wake up in the morning like a fallen angel and poke his head out of a sleeping bag full of potato-vodka vomit. Also heard him cry like a little bitch while the Rube humped his leg in a desperate effort to get him to move off my goddamn couch.

And I guess he worked like a dog on this project, which eventually will include three cds totaling 50 original songs. I know he’s been preoccupied, because he asked 48 times lately if i’ve seen “Idiocracy,” which might be the number of times he’s viewed this shitbird film. Never remembered my answer, even once.

Nobody’s perfect.

Alas, it turns out there’s more to Jefferson Pepper than I knew. I’ve been to his house many times and admired the rustic architecture and bucolic setting, but I never realized he lived in the mountains. I’m not the keenest observer, but still, that’s strange. Nor have I witnessed one of those terrible blizzards that turn the place into a Currier & Ives postcard.

Yep, while swilling some fancy schmancy liquor or other up at the bar in the beer can museum, the Rube never had an inkling he was sitting on top of Walton Mountain. But that’s what I learned from Jefferson Pepper’s bio on cdbaby.

"He spent the winters of 2006 and 2007 holed up in his cedar-sided home studio in the Conewago Mountains of southern Pennsylvania. As the snow piled up outside, he became more and more reclusive, sometimes going for several weeks at a time without leaving the house. For two years he worked feverishly on writing and recording the songs that would be included on his sophomore effort, the follow-up to his acclaimed 2005 post-industrial Americana debut album Christmas in Fallujah."

Poor Dickensian bastard. Quintessential underdog fighting the losing battle against the soulless, overpowering powers that be. As a blizzard rages outside his mountain hovel, the creditors howl at his door and threaten to take away everything he owns.

You see, this is all part of the mythology he’s created in which to embed his songs. He’s even got his own record label. And he’s never been short on grand ambitions. The bigger, the better. He once spent an entire night regaling anyone who hadn’t tuned him out about his outlandish vision for an alternate version of Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one wherein George Bailey really was never born and poor Mary Hatch ended up gyrating around a stripper pole, blowing Mr. Potter for table scraps and shooting heroin in Pottersville.

But that’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk about Jefferson Pepper’s new album. And I regret to say, the little S.O.B. has done it this time. Naturally, you think I’m just singing the praises of an old friend out of loyalty. Or maybe I once banged his wife in a moment of drunken indiscretion and I have an unrequited need to atone for my sins? Not so. Not at all.

Let me tell you this: I’m not pleased to discover that Jefferson Pepper has turned out a remarkable album that demands a fair hearing, an impressive project that deserves a place somewhere beyond the collection of true friends. Really, I’m pissed. I am a man of immense jealousies, you see. Schadenfreude is my code. Nothing hurts me more than the success of others.

And warts aside, this is a triumph. It’s the work of a talented bastard surging in self-confidence, shedding pretensions piece by piece and gathering command of his vision. Sure, I got quibbles, but what do you expect when the prolific fucker turns out 17 songs in what’s just the opening disc of a trilogy?

For one, the guy’s a dogmatic S.O.B., no way around that. Just check out this excerpt from track no. 11, “Dam in the River of Life”:

"Survival is every animal’s goal/so man’s big brain invented a soul/to save him from his terrible fate/damn near everybody took the bait"

You get the idea. No matter where you fall on the eschatological scale, if you’re anything less than a what-the-fuck-are-those-idiots-thinking atheist, you’re a dumbass. As an agnostic, I sympathize. Atheism, that’s just the flip side of religious zealotry. But this album is more than the sum of its imperfections. And you shouldn’t let a heavy-handed phrase here or an historical half-truth there ruin the experience.

Let’s start at the finish, with “Primates Swingin’” a rollicking gem that oozes an irresistible rockabilly groove. It’s fun, it swings and it educates. And it is loaded with witty rhymes. To wit:

"Six million years ago today, hominids were on the way/the first known by consensus was sahelanthropus tchadensis. Two million years ago they weren’t no fools/those hominids started making tools"

Kidding me, right? No. And while you’re trying to decipher the latinate twists and turns the hominid chain has taken since God created man, from homo habilis (nobody’d ever seen a guy like this) to homo ergaster (who soon became the master) to homo erectus (who had a better prospectus), next thing you know, the bass line comes crashing in and you find yourself tapping your toes and dancing around like a deadhead on amphetamines. And the kids, they dig it, too.

Track 12, “Fine Fine Day,” is an infectious gem. It exudes an airy, old-timey ambiance that would make Andy Griffith smile. Barney Fife, too. Caveat emptor: Mr. Pepper would have you believe he’s a luddite who thinks everything, besides war and discrimination and oppression, that happened long ago has to be better than this horseshit we’re dealing with now. But I’ve seen this guy drive 20 minutes out of his way to shop at Wal-Mart. He is one of us. Don’t be fooled.

“Fine Fine Day” is a sunny-day frolic that pokes at the soft underbelly of the miracle we call electricity. The foot-stomping, buoyant beat and carefree vocals provide ironic counterpoint to delightfully sardonic lyrics.

"I knew a Texas undertaker who didn’t have a care/he went to meet his maker in an old electric chair/it’s a fine fine day, a fine fine day, a fine fine day, across the USA

As my colleague Rookie Wilson said, “I know this song is supposed to be about some serious shit, but I can’t help it, it makes me feel happy.”

And it does. Alas, happiness is not Mr. Pepper’s stock in trade.

While “Primates” makes for an optimistic sendoff (“when they took the census another branch was heidelbergensis/who evolved into homo sapiens and thus began the modern trend/if we’re smart while we’re in our prime/we’ll be around for a long, long time“), the album opens with the bleaker vision.

In “Can’t Go Home,” hope for a long, long time is long gone. A land blessed with majestic purple mountains and fecund fruited plains follows a tragic arc to post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The bridge delivers the gut punch. Bird songs and blue skies give to the unromantic realities of post-nuclear survival mode:

"now the hum of generators and artificial lights/you hear them switching off again as day turns into night/live the good old days in a dreamy haze till you wake and come around in your little concrete shelter seven stories underground"

This opening salvo sets the tone for Pepper’s sometimes vitriolic attack on the hypocrisies of the American experience. Before it’s over, Pepper takes aim at everything from the rapacious arrival of Columbus on the shores of the new world to the ruthless rise of robber baron John D. Rockefeller to the 21st-century quagmire we’re facing in Mesopotamia...

The music is where the day’s won, and Pepper’s got a bent for genre-bending. Alt-country sensibilities trade partners with power chords, rural blues go toe-to-toe with traditional string music. Along the way, Pepper enlists help from an array of able hands. Fiddler/mandolin player Joe Allison and pedal steel maestro Ray Eicher give memorable performances throughout. Their instrumental duet on the carpe diem anthem “Can’t Come Back” is particularly pleasing, with Allison’s lyrical fiddle dancing playfully with Eicher’s soaring steel guitar.

Two Scotch-Irish-infused instrumentals, “Lewis and Clark Homecoming” and “Appomatox,” provide welcome levity and give Allison ample room to move. Randy Stewart’s loping banjo offers a jubilant accent to Appomatox. You can envision Union soldiers hurling hats skyward and cavorting in celebration as four years of bitter carnage comes to an end.

The musical antecedents are all over the map. With its layered rhymes and jaundiced tone, the tropical “Only Survivor” recalls the antiheroine of Dylan’s seminal “Like a Rolling Stone” (you got your coppertone on and you look so cool/by your in-ground pool and your thatched-bamboo cabana/but the voice in your head feels regret/you left me for dead in South Bend, Indiana). “Dam in the River of Life” echoes latter-day Dylan with its caustic allusions to ambiguous icons, from Tom Sawyer to charles Darwin to Charlton Heston and the Planet of the Apes.

With it’s socially troubled protagonists and undulating steel guitar, “Paperback Romance” offers a waltzing homage to John Prine’s “Donald and Lydia.” Only this time, in a decidedly unjeffersonian twist, there’s a happy ending.

Speaking of endings, my assessment is bound to distress Mr. Pepper. Because when he’s not declaring that organized sport inculcates man with an us-versus-them mentality, he’s telling me that music must do more than entertain, that there must be a moral to the story.

And while the arc of the storytelling is indeed grand, I’m continually beguiled by the music. Sometimes the lyrics hit dead-on, and when they don’t, they are obscured in the unfolding tapestry of the music. That what it is, damned good music.

And on that note, there’s one other song that hangs in my head. It’s not a history lesson or a morality tale, not a folk-punk opera or a post-industrial progressive-country lament. “I Don’t Wanna Be Alone” is a winsome romance that lingers in the air like a sweet summer breeze and recalls Harlan Howard’s definition of country music (three chords and the truth).

"Cause home is where the heart is/it’s maudlin but it’s true/every lonesome highway that I travel/leads me back to you/I don’t wanna be alone/I don’t wanna be alone/'cause it’s a mean old world without you girl, I don’t wanna be alone …

Maudlin? Maybe. But it’s true.

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