The Bones of JR Jones is what the blues needs to stay relevant in the 21st century. The blues has for a long time been an artifact, a museum piece. It has had great innovation in its children genre rock and roll and grandchildren like heavy metal and psychedelia, but the blues itself has struggled to keep itself from fading away. So many of its new stars feel like nostalgia acts, blindly mirroring the genius of Lightnin Hopkins or Charlie Patton in a way that entertains but fails to inspire. That is why the world needs Bones of JR Jones. Bones balances two tones on his new album Ones To Keep Close: garage influenced production mixed with Son House style songwriting and straight up lonely grieving blues. The result is phenomenal.
Ones to Keep Close is the third album by Bones, and I feel it balances elements from each of the first two very well. The first album, 2014’s Dark Was The Yearling, was very much an acoustic album. Plenty of reverb on the production and a few stand out electric numbers like “Fury of the Light” but mostly the album consisted of finger picked odes like “Broken Land” and “Hearts Racing.” Dark’s 2016 follow up, Spirit’s Furnace, was when Bones really embraced the garage aspect of production. It’s big hit, “The Heat,” which got a decent amount of use in television shows, showcases this in full force. The new album doesn’t shirk any of its lineage. Ones To Keep Close opens with “The Drop,” a song which sounds like if Bad Religion had written a song off a riff John Lee Hooker wrote but never used. Bluesy and swinging, it nevertheless brings all the high octane energy of modern alt rock. But a few songs later, the listener finds themselves in a Skip James inspired lamenting ballad called “Sinner Song.” The transition sounds jarring on paper but in practice the album flows lovely and the movement through the songs feels completely natural.
To the best of my knowledge, the only guitar Bones used on this album was his Dean resonator guitar, which gives a unique twist on the tracks centered around overdrive and distortion like “I See You” and “Know My Name” while it gives a warm and beautiful tone to the slower pieces like “Die Young.” It does sound like he used an electric guitar on the jazz influenced “Enemy,” the only track in Bones’s discography to feature a horn section, and one of the few to feature bass. Two or three songs on the album also feature organ, which is a surprising shift from Bones’s guitar and banjo heavy repertoire but a welcome one nonetheless, as he uses them with great affect on “Enemy” and “Sister.”
The presence of synthesizers on several tracks on the album is, on paper, a jarring and radical departure from the previous albums. However, in practice, I didn’t notice the presence of them on any track but “Take Me Away.” The new addition to Bones’s sound is weaved so excellently into his style, it doesn’t distract at all from his songwriting.
Overall I think Ones To Keep Close is a great introduction album for a new Bones of JR Jones fan. It balances the soft and the harsh of both of the first albums and introduces new elements to stay fresh for those who listened both of those earlier albums to death. It makes me eager to hear what more JR Jones will give us next.
Greg von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. His expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.