Last summer, I had the pleasure of catching a traveling mini-music festival dubbed Americanarama, featuring the likes of Bob Dylan, Wilco, and My Morning Jacket. Just a cursory look at that lineup doesn’t lend itself to the traditional definition of “Americana”, but it had me thinking that a reevaluation, at least in my own head, was in order for what exactly that genre term means in the 21st century. Perhaps “Americana” is no longer simply a term encapsulating acoustic string music, flush with banjos and mandolins and such; maybe it is more an ethos than anything else. America is vast, rich with resources, both urbane and wild, a testament to those 19th century folks wild with exploit, heading west to their Manifest Destiny when the land truly did seem as if it’d stretch forever and the horizon tantalizingly out of reach. Surely, “Americana” could represent innovation, resourcefulness, a “kitchen-sink” approach to expanding boundaries?
Now enter multi-instrumentalist Jocie Adams, late of eccentric Rhode Island folk-rockers The Low Anthem, and her first venture under her Arc Iris namesake. Adams dauntingly and effortlessly combines nearly any and every instrument one can think of across her arresting Arc Iris debut. Her sonic palette is a wonderful paradox of deep and complex layers rendered completely accessible and comfortable due to the absolute familiarity and organics of the instrumentation. Adams jumps from the banjo and snare-led gallop of opener “Money Gnomes” to the piano and string-laden lullaby of “Canadian Cowboy”; the organ-spiked soulful doo-wop of “Ditch” to the bawdy, brassy “Singing So Sweetly” and “Swimming” and seemingly all points between. Incredibly, it takes deep, multiple listens to really hone in on all the instrumental variation Adams throws at you from song to song, particularly on the slower ones, due to her superior knack for weaving these tangential threads into a congruent whole.
Lyrically, Arc Iris is exceptionally dense; while musically, nearly everything one encounters here is familiar, Adams’ poetry – and this is certainly poetry – and her occasional Joanna Newsom-like vocal affectations may prove to be acquired tastes. She addresses the troubles of exceptional wealth begetting gluttony on “Money Gnomes” as her female protagonist wonders aloud “why must riches make us thieves?”, and appears to pit her opposite God, who seems to implore her to “love me please, love me true, love me beautifully”. This an ode to the erosion of America’s Puritanical roots, elsewhere Adams revels in the folly of drunken love on “Whiskey Man” and the self-absorbed escapist hedonism of “Powder Train”. The stark underside to this frolicking are her ruminations on death where she graphically aches for her lost love on “Ditch” pining even for his “severed skin” and “burning marrow”; she confesses her willingness to join him in death, proclaiming, “would the vault be opened, I’d release my soul” on “Might I Deserve To Have A Dream”. As viscous and challenging as Adams’ words can be, they’re equally clever and beautiful.
Befitting Bob Dylan’s notorious proclamation that “traditional music…comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues and revolves around vegetables and death”, Arc Iris is traditional music thrillingly positioned at the nexus of the old and new. And this is where America typically finds itself, always striving to move forward while constantly reveling in the tethers of its past. Two minutes spent on any cable news network would reveal that we don’t do a very good job of it, either – at least not socially or politically. Fortunately, America has artists like Jocie Adams who can do it with magnificence artistically.