How weird. I could have sworn that I had done something about this record’s predecessor back in the day, but then I noticed that We Are Only Riders appeared back in 2009, just before this blog started. How time flies when you’re having fun, eh?
Ah well, better give a bit of background, then. The JLP Sessions Project was put together by one Cypress Grove, former Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s final collaborator before his death in 1996, after he found some cassettes in his loft one day containing demos, ideas and sketches for new songs that Jeffrey was working on with him. These sketches were completed and reinterpreted by several of his friends, collaborators and fans to form We Are Only Riders. Three years later, and released as close to the anniversary of Jeffrey’s passing as such schedules will allow, a second collection is now available.
Perhaps it’s because of the songs used for this record or an emotional weight lifted from over the first one or perhaps just the success of the former providing a definite direction for the latter, The Journey Is Long feels less reverential and more relaxed. Indeed, thanks to a couple of choice cuts at either end of the album courtesy of a louche, rakish City In Pain from Nick Cave that opens the album and a characteristically raucous Jim Jones Revue closing proceedings with Ain’t My Problem Baby. In between these are a further sixteen tracks from a variety of acts, artists and collaborations, all of whom are not so much paying tribute (as Kris Needs explains in the first sentence of the extensive liner notes, this is not a tribute album) as putting a little bit of themselves into the work of their friend and/or musical guiding light.
The selection of material has also expanded slightly from the unfinished sketches of those tapes to include The Gun Club’s own The Breaking Hands from the Mother Juno album – covered twice here in the form of two heavyweight duets from Mark Lanegan & Isobel Campbell, and Nick Cave and Debbie Harry. There seems to be a healthy competition developing between these two pairs, as they both also covered the same song on the previous record (Free To Walk). On the earlier album, Mark and Isobel’s road-tested version (it was a staple of their live act) was by far the superior rendition, but Nick & Debbie provide the better version here by virtue of providing that extra bit of ‘oomph’ to their interpretation – and this is despite Lanegan & Campbell having the technical advantage of being in part backed by Jeffrey himself (he pops up several times on the record). So that leaves the scores at 1-1 with the tantalising prospect of a third album in the works to provide the tiebreaker.
Elsewhere, it’s all a bit wonderfully eclectic. Thalia Zedek and Chris Brokaw brink old school punk sass (trying their best to overtake each other during the verses) to Zonar Roze, Kris Needs’ own Astro-Unicorn gets a bit spacey on Book Of Love and Bad Seed Mick Harvey performs a poignant St Mark’s Place (a song that also appears on We Are Only Riders, performed there by Lydia Lunch who also appears several times here). The only slight lowpoint for me comes in the form of Rose’s Blues, not for the song itself (it’s a suitably-creepy dirge and Warren Ellis and Cypress Grove excel on it) but for the inclusion of Bertrand Cantat that makes for a pretty uncomfortable listen. That’s just something that doesn’t sit well with me I’m afraid. The Journey Is Long’s heart can be found fittingly enough not just at its centre, but also performed by Cypress Grove himself: L.A. County Jail Blues captures Jeffrey’s Delta spirit perfectly and really brings the collection to life.
As with We Are Only Riders, The Journey Is Long is accompanied by a large booklet, affectionately detailing the man, the project and the people involved. It’s stirring stuff, but as with before the biggest emotional punch is provided by Jacqui, Jeffrey’s sister who takes a snapshot of their life together and turns it into something moving and beautiful.
The Journey Is Long is, like its predecessor, a wonderfully ego-free gathering of people making songs (often appearing on each others’ tracks) because they really liked the guy who wrote them – and strange as that may sound, that’s not something that happens very often. Far from a tribute, it’s a way for friends and cohorts to say goodbye in the most fitting way, providing musical instruments for Los Angeles’ underprivileged kids in the process, through a foundation set up in Jeffrey’s name by Jacqui (profits from We Are Only Riders went to Amnesty International). It’s a set that’s full of life, fitting for someone who seemed rather tragically to enjoy it far more than many of us could ever wish for.