Black Eagle Child: Lobelia

Lobelia is the debut full-length album under the Black Eagle Child moniker from guitarist Michael Jantz, the album's title derived from the name of a native flower his mother administered as a cure-all remedy to her children when he was younger. That every track on the album is named for something in his childhood or current life emphasizes the highly personalized nature of the recording. Jantz isn't afraid to not only draw upon life experience for creating his work but is also open about acknowledging the role his personal life plays in its creation. As a result, the album is imbued with deep feeling, and its material is often heartfelt in nature. There's a loose and improvised—which doesn't mean unstructured—feel to the material, as he recorded the songs after rehearsing bits and pieces and getting comfortable with their basic form. Though not all are so densely layered, some tracks have as many as eight guitars (acoustic, electric, Ebow), and banjo, tambourine, accordion, and percussion appear too. The tracks themselves were home-recorded and sprinkled with field recordings captured at a series of trails and parks near the Milwaukee River.

An exercise in laid-back, folk-blues splendour, the opening song, “Crandon” (the name of a mining town in Wisconsin where Jantz's family often visited and where he still fishes with his dad and brother), is emblematic of the album's character as it builds layers of acoustic guitars and banjo, accompanied by simple percussion (tambourine, hand drums) into a heartwarming ode to the outdoors (present in field recordings that frame the piece). In keeping with its title, “Paper Delivery” exudes a nostalgic air that finds Jantz using multi-tracked guitars to resurrect a boyhood memory, while “Falling Off Your Bike” finds guitars weaving in slow and measured manner, with plaintive lines heard against a backdrop of natural sounds (birds, traffic, children). A Ry Cooder-esque feel imbues the blues-folk meander of “The River's Course,” and, as much if not more than any other piece, “A Different River” exemplifies the pleasure that Jantz by his own admission receives from improvising in response to simple chord progressions. In addition there's the lyrical meditation “Summer Street,” the mesmerizing “The Quarry Slide,” and “Families Get Together,” a light-hearted, back porch coda featuring banjo and acoustic guitar.

That the work wistfully reflects on Jantz's growing up in the rural area around Lake Michigan is evidenced by song titles such as “Porch Screens,” “Paper Delivery,” and “Falling Off Your Bike.” Here's someone clearly drawing on memories that are more heartwarming than traumatized, and the music conveys an understated uplift that renders the album all the more engaging. That personalized feel is also strengthened by the liberal inclusion of field recordings, many of them featuring the sounds of squealing children. Especially touching is “I Forgot,” a heartfelt meditation of crystalline guitar shadings where the joyous coo of Jantz's infant daughter, Mary, jumps out from the track's center, the effect emblematic of the warmth and humanity of his material. The album reflects upon his childhood but is also a meditation on his status as not just son but father too, someone taking on a newfound identity. Lobelia focuses on the lighter end of the six-string spectrum, where experimental touches when present at all are woven discreetly into the music's organic folk fabric, and the music is earthy, yes, but less in the pastoral and more in the blues-folk sense of the word.

April 2011