Ramblin’ Jack Elliott


Call it the Rick Rubin treatment: Take an aging icon (Rubin’s already done Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond), repackage him or her for the MTV generation (in Cash’s case, covers of Soundgarden, Beck, and Nine Inch Nails), and count the quan as the kids download away. Also, ignore the mixed results—Cash did justice to Trent Reznor’s “Hurt,” but who remembers Burt Bacharach’s collaboration with Dr. Dre or Tom Jones’ bizarre buddying-up with Wyclef Jean?—and subsequent cynicism among snooty record buyers. After all, something’s wrong with the world when even the long-deceased Judy Garland isn’t safe from Rufus Wainwright. At 75, however, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is too slick for such industry machinations. Sure, I Stand Alone is on the same label as the Locust and the Coup, and Flea and X drummer DJ Bonebrake serve as a spare rhythm section on a few tracks. But Elliott wisely keeps it simple: No grunge covers or flashy guest producers or even overdubbed synths. I Stand Alone is Ramblin’ Jack…standing alone, strumming his guitar, groping at melody lines with his gravelly old voice, and giving his distinctive stamp to traditional material while refusing to fix what ain’t broke. The LP’s one original—“Woody’s Last Ride,” a throwaway cowboy eulogy for Elliott’s spirit guide, Guthrie—actually sounds less personal than a cover of Almanac Singer Butch Hawes’ “Arthritis Blues.” Hawes died 35 years ago after battling the ailment, but when Elliott moans the haunting couplet “Arthritis is a thing to miss/It’ll leave you walkin’ with a double twist,” he one-ups the original recording’s flat vocal. Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker does sneak into the session to butcher Jerry Irby’s “Driving Nails in My Coffin” with ill-conceived punky backups, but one forgets the intrusion once Lucinda Williams joins Elliott on a faithful retelling of Ernest Tubb’s “Careless Darling.” The offering is refreshingly informal and, like most of I Stand Alone, sounds effortless. Elliott is casual to the extreme; “My Old Dog and Me,” a trad number (and one of the LP’s three man’s-best-friend songs) lasts all of 19 seconds, but this is a man who knows when his point has been made. In fact, more than half of I Stand Alone clocks in under two minutes—think Double Nickels on the Dime for the senior set. Perhaps Rick Rubin would have brought in a string section, a full chorus, and Nick Cave. Elliott brought his dog and a few friends, which seems to have worked just fine.—Justin Moyer