There is something beautiful about watching a true expert work on their craft. Whether a mastered pianist, painter, or motorcycle mechanic, their hands and their face express something special, some deeply focused connection between the artist and their medium. Musically, my favorite example of this phenomenon is this video of John Entwistle recording bass for The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”; I love his intense concentration and minimal movement, his uncanny rendering of Robert Lowell’s statement: “Expressionless, expresses God.”
It is in this same vein that I love watching Julian Lage play the guitar. There’s just something so infectious and fun about his overall demeanor, and yet a profound intricacy and intention behind every finger he lays on the fretboard, every caress of each string. Some of my personal favorite examples include his “Seasons” piece with Ben Wendel, “Book With No Binding” with Margaret Glaspy, as well as “Splendor Riot” from his 2018 release Modern Lore.
Along with his virtuosic guitar work, Julian is a brilliant composer and improviser, with clear influences from jazz/americana/avant-garde guitar legends Bill Frisell and Nels Cline. His compositions found a new level of diversity on Modern Lore, ranging from quiet and brooding ballads, to raucously fast and abrasive jazz tunes, to raunchy and fun rockers. Going into this new record, I was excited to see how Julian’s playing and composition would continue to grow and evolve.
Love Hurts finds Julian playing in trio alongside longtime collaborator Jorge Roeder (bass), and first-time collaborator Dave King (drums). Given King’s own penchant for blending jazz and the avant-garde with americana and rock-based sounds, as evidenced by his deep back catalog with groups like Happy Apple, The Bad Plus, and The Dave King Trucking Company, I was extremely excited to hear him play with Julian. And OH BOY, Dave King does not disappoint. His sense of groove, his intentional touch and tone, and elements of melodic drumming are the perfect compliment to Lage’s wide-ranging guitar work. A wonderful example of their interplay is the final track “Crying” (a Roy Orbison cover), where King’s tone and Roeder’s driving bass create the perfect setting of peaks and valleys over which Lage creates a towering harmonium of melodies.
On “Tomorrow Is The Question” (an Ornette Coleman cover), the group finds a balance between a more traditional “swinging” jazz feel, Julian’s “earthy” melodic concepts, and the free-jazz attitude that Ornette pioneered. “The Windup” is a fast-paced driving groove, with quick and jaunty melodies, reminding me of the sort of song Ron Miles might write. King’s drumming builds tension to the point that the whole song seems like it might fall apart, only to fall back to a lone guitar or bass melody before building back up again. A wonderfully loose, fun track. “Encore (A)” is a fun track as well, featuring a catchy motif, and in many ways embodying the best of modern jazz: interesting improvisations, complex figures, and off-kilter melodies that seem like they shouldn’t work but somehow do, all used in the service of a great song. “Trudgin’” meanwhile, lives up to its name with a dirge-like feel that reminds me a little of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’.”
Perhaps my favorite track on the record, however, is the title track: “Love Hurts.” In many ways a simple ballad, Julian finds an emotional melodic space as only he can, at times really “singing” through his guitar almost like a ‘60’s crooner, at other times slowly strumming out chords that sound almost impossibly sweet. “Love Hurts” finds a part of my heart I didn’t know existed, then tortures it with gorgeously bittersweet emotional resonances. If this song doesn’t at least make you sigh with feeling, then you, my reader, are truly heartless.
Overall, Love Hurts is my favorite Lage record to date. Julian’s ability to play potent ballads and raunchy rockers remains top-notch, while he reaches new heights of compositional and improvisational maturity. King’s and Roeder’s voices make this album shine as well, both keeping pace with and encouraging Julian’s explorations of the spectrum between restrained intricacies and free-range raucousness. Congratulations to Julian Lage on another fantastic record; I can’t wait to hear what he does next.
Marcus Dupuis is a friend, a listener, and a writer. He is 22 years old, and is currently residing off the grid.