Roll Call

Just horsing around: Jim Roll
Doug Coombe

Jim Roll's new album should come with a warning label--"Caution: Contains material by aging novelists who never realized their pubescent rock 'n' roll dreams." After all, Inhabiting the Ball (The Telegraph Company) features contributions from two literary luminaries: Denis Johnson, best known for Jesus' Son, wrote lyrics to five of the songs, while Rick Moody of The Ice Storm renown penned the words to three. The liner notes were contributed by Neil Pollack, self-proclaimed Greatest Living American Writer and a regular contributor to the esoteric Web site and quarterly publication McSweeney's. With all this literary firepower backing the Ann Arbor, Michigan, songwriter on his third album, I half expected to flip the disc in my CD player and hear him somberly read off the lyrics--or, worse yet, earnestly strum guitar chords while belting out the words in a manner reminiscent of Joan Baez.

Luckily, Roll shows little reverence for Johnson and Moody's precious words--no matter how poetic they may be. The title song kicks off Inhabiting the Ball with a sound montage of television clips and channel-flipping fuzz, accompanied by Roll's plaintive banjo plucking. Over this background din he purrs, "We're all existin' on the same planet/We're all inhabiting the ball/Ain't it ironical that it ain't conical/Or some of us would surely fall." The words are Johnson's, but Roll has hijacked them for his own musical means, creating a bleak portrait of our media- and violence-saturated modern world. Elsewhere on the album, he buries Moody's prose beneath a feedback-laden guitar riff and freely mucks with Johnson's words.

Roll's collaborations with both Johnson and Moody developed from letters he mailed to the novelists. The missive to Johnson mentioned that Roll had written music to accompany one of the author's poems. That initial contact led to Roll creating music for three songs from Johnson's play Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, which debuted in San Francisco last summer. (Two of the numbers are sung by a television set.) On California theater company Intersection for the Arts' Web site, Johnson described the play, his second chronicling of the dysfunctional Cassandra clan, as "an evening of tequila, family and firearms." Roll's interaction with Moody has been fruitful as well. In addition to the songs included on the album, the two are working together on three additional tunes.

Even with such esteemed collaborators, some of the finest moments on Inhabiting the Ball are Roll's solo productions. "Kicking at the Traces" is a tale of existential anxiety--told from the perspective of a horse. It contains the singular line "Should be your steed and now I feel like I'm just glue," followed by a sonic meltdown that moves with the glacial pace of, well, Elmer's White. The folk tune "Eddie Rode the Orphan Train" is a stark, heart-rending narrative about a boy sent South from New York aboard an iron horse in search of a new home.

Maybe Johnson and Moody have finally fulfilled their rock 'n' roll dreams. They just needed a little help from Roll.

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