J. TEX & THE VOLUNTEERS – HOUSE ON THE HILL
2012 – Heptown Records
Had Tom Waits gone in a country music direction back in his early days this recording would in all probability be his new album, such is the generally quirky feel and the (slightly!) smoothed out vocals of J. Tex! An odd comparison as well as an over simplification but there are slight whispers of Waits, although there is a lot more to this album of music that has
to be categorized as country, but a strange highly original, cleverly constructed and loose take on the genre.
The band is made up of Jens Einer Sørensen (J.Tex) on vocals, guitar, banjo and violin, whilst the ‘Volunteers’ are Ida Hvid on bass and Jason Bedard on Drums. Sorensen was born in Detroit, Michigan but grew up in Denmark and he returned to the US at the age of 20, eventually returning to Copenhagen where he and the other two members of the trio now live. There are twelve songs on this quirky but excellent album of which seven are J. Tex originals, one of which is an instrumental, and the remaining five are‘covers’ of one traditional instrumental, plus songs by Steve Earle, Lowell George, Danny Dil/Mel Tillis and another by Johnny Cash. I say covers but this unusual trio do
their level best to not exactly make them unrecognizable but to adapt them to their own idiosyncratic style that it’s safe to say is unlike anyone else I can think of!
All of the songs are played and sung in a slow tempo but there are always a lot of interesting diversions going on with the instrumentation, vocals and in many cases the lyrics. First track on the album is a case in point and gives a fair indication of the entertaining quirkiness that is to follow. It is a Tex original with an addictive percussive opening that wouldn’t disgrace Tom Waits, similarly the vocals. The song is a dark murder and execution ballad with some nice banjo and a chunky percussive guitar with a nice strong double bass thump, all combining to give a unique atmosphere. This is followed by another unusual song in Home On The Hill, another entertaining tale from the pen of Tex and a lovely sparse story of loneliness that has an arid desert feel, almost like a scene from a spaghetti western, with nice bass thrum plus acoustic guitar, occasional harmonica and shaker, even including alto sax towards the end! The sax, coming in late as it does, seems to deepen the darkness of the song. Look Up Look Down has an incredibly twangy electric guitar, repetitive drum
sound and nice heavy bass on another tale of loneliness that this time he hopes is coming to an end, followed a couple of songs later by a complete departure, although still recognizably this talented band. It is Carnival Girl, with it’s nice barrelhouse piano and sax intro/interlude with acoustic
guitar and harmonica on a really cleverly constructed tale of his beloved that in many ways evokes the carnival atmosphere of old. A strange, quite sinister feeling song. There is some real foot tapping percussion and bass, later helped by sax on a story of a Coalminers Daughter that has little in common with the Loretta Lynne classic but is still a quirkily riveting story that is almost impossible to tie down to any genre, particularly with the sax going off in a different direction. The best of
the covers are an extraordinary version of Lowell George’s Willin’ and Steve Earle’s, just as extraordinary, Ben McCulloch. I’m pretty sure these two esteemed writers never envisaged this treatment of their songs but just as sure they would have enjoyed this slightly different treatment. The album closes with the two instrumentals, the traditional I Always Knew You Were The
One, with it’s lovely accordion lead, accompanied by fiddle and bass and Tex’s Ukulele Lullaby that is summed up by the title.
This is an album I keep returning to thanks to the originality that the band brings to their music and despite the ‘quirkiness’ it is a recording of great skill and musicality that really is
a country album, albeit one that is closer to the boundary than it is the mainstream and long may they continue ploughing their own furrow!
Apparently there are several albums that preceeded this one that should be well worth searching out. I’m certainly going to!
2006 - Lost between clouds of tumbleweed and space
2008 - One of these days
2010 - Misery