Jake Bugg: tunes for a troubled town

Jake Bugg

Thursday found me cloistered in a Midwestern hotel room preparing for a court hearing. Complete silence is oppressive, but I can’t work with a TV or radio on. Solution: play Jake Bugg’s “Trouble Town” on repeat. Sometime between dusk and dawn, it occurred to me that this song has to be on my mix in honor (lamentation?) of the shutdown:

Stuck in speed bump city / Where the only thing that’s pretty / Is the thought of getting out.

Jake Bugg is a nineteen-year-old British singer-songwriter who has been compared to Bob Dylan (including by the friend who introduced me to Bugg’s music). But when I offer this comparison as a shorthand for describing Bugg’s sound to friends, I am met mostly with skepticism, even outright indignation: How could anyone compare anyone to the great Dylan, the pillar of Americana? I know you’re scoffing, but hear me out. I’m not saying the Nottingham teenager is the next Dylan. But I am saying that his warbling, rough-around-the-edges voice and world-weary lyrics combine to form something that is really quite special.

Yes, everyone sings about heartbreak and hard times. But Bugg has a knack for condensing a scene into a single line and weaving those lines into a story: “He’s down in the kitchen drinking White Lightning / He’s with my momma, they’re yelling and fighting / It’s not the first time praying for silence / Something is changing, changing, changing.”

Bugg cites Johnny Cash, Don McLean, and Jimi Hendrix as inspirations, and refers to Jimmy Page as an idol. The influence of these musical greats comes out in his songs (and his wicked good guitar playing), which range from the feisty, diffident “Two Fingers” (I drink to remember, I smoke to forget / Some things to remember, some things to regret) to the pensive, cool-yet-heartsore “Seen It All” (I’ve seen it all, nothing shocks me anymore after tonight / I’ve seen the light, but not the kind I would have liked).

I saw Jake Bugg last month at a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club.

Judging by the teeming mass of hysterical teenage girls, I thought I’d walked into a Justin Bieber concert. But this was no Auto-Tuned (or Melodyne, whatever) android producing formulaic pop hits (ok, in fairness, Bieber’s not without talent). Jake Bugg is the real thing — an “antidote to plastic pop.” Yes, he’s still young and yes, he has only one album out — but he is undeniably talented.

Bugg’s songs are constructed around acoustic guitar, harmonica, and drums — it’s not a fancy ensemble. He barely smiles or makes eye contact when he performs. He seems almost indifferent to the adulation that he’s receiving from both sides of the Atlantic.

But then, Jake Bugg wouldn’t want you to think he’s anything more than a working-class kid, Marlboro dangling from his lips as he strums and sings in a manner that belies his age and reverberates in my mind even after the last note fades.

In this trouble town, troubles are found / In this trouble town, fools are found.

Bugg’s second album, Shangri La, will be released on November 18th.

Author: Vivian Wang

A gal with a camera and a penchant for deconstructing lyrics. Know of a band I should be listening to? Need press or concert shots? Let's chat: lithophyte.photo [at] gmail [dot] com.

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