There's a big difference between feeling depressed and suffering from depression. If you're feeling depressed it's a temporary thing that you'll usually pull out of within a few days, after the effects of whatever it was that caused you to feel down wear off. Clinical depression on the other hand is a permanent condition that some people cope with their whole lives. Its insidious as it can emotionally and psychologically cripple you, leaving you bed ridden as surely as if you suffered from some physically debilitating disease.
You are overcome by a lassitude of such magnitude that you eventually don't see the point in getting out of bed. While there are all sorts of scientific explanations for what happens to the brain because of depression - hormonal imbalances and various chemicals either not reaching the brain in sufficient quantity or too much arriving all at once leaving the brain swamped - it's not certain whether or not this merely describes what's going on in a depressed brain or if these are causes of depression. While it's true that the medication used to treat depression works on flat lining emotional responses by inhibiting certain chemicals, they are not cures for the ailment and barely even treat the symptoms.
In a society where feelings are frowned upon to the point that we're taught to repress them from an early age there's a lot of stuff that gets bottled up inside. Most cases of depression are as result of that bottle coming uncorked and the person being overwhelmed. The chronically depressed person deals with that permanently, as unlike the majority they haven't shut down their ability to feel and without an avenue to express what that does to them they fry. The so called "artistic temperament" is in actual fact a creative person's ongoing struggle with depression as they search for the means to express what they are feeling.
I suppose this must seem like an odd way to start off a CD review, with a dissertation on depression, but Jake La Botz's latest release on his own Charnel Ground Records label,Sing This To Yourself And Other Suggestions For A Personal Apocalypse is as lucid and honest examination of the subject as you'll hear anywhere. Without a trace of self-pity or melodrama the eleven songs on Sing This To Yourself explore and describe what a person going through depression experiences. While some might wonder at the rationale behind creating a recording of songs about depression, La Botz's explanation of "My hope is that these songs could be a comfort to those who are struggling" is worth remembering.
Depression is an incredibly isolating illness, so for the person suffering with it the knowledge that somebody understands what they're going through is more valuable then any medication. Now that's not to say this album should only be listened to when prescribed by a shrink, (although I personally think it's a far better medication than Prozac or any of the other deadening drugs they give to depressed people) as it's an amazing collection of songs that has a lot to offer anybody who appreciates a well written blues tune. For Jake La Botz has an astounding capacity to express emotions in a way that anybody listening can't help but understanding and be touched by them.
Jake reminds us where the blues came from and what drew people to it in the first place. That's not because he's trying to imitate what somebody did sixty years ago, but because he deals with the stuff that troubles the human spirit in the same manner that blues people of old did. Of course he's not singing about the things from yesterday that caused the blues; what it's like to be on a chain gang in the deep south, picking cotton, or being a sharecropper, he's singing about the things today that scrape us raw and leave us wounded in the heart.
"Hungry Again (Put Me In A Hole)", the opening track on the disc, describes the kind of life that can make a person feel too much. "Left alone too much as a small boy/Learned to walk and talk from the animals/they taught me what to eat". Neglect and abandonment are sure fire ways to turn a person in on themselves as they feel like they don't matter and they know the people who are supposed to care about them don't, so why should anybody else? That song expresses the hunger that burns in a person's chest to be wanted, to know that somebody cares about what happens to them.
The great thing about Jake La Botz's music is Jake himself and what he brings to his performance of the tunes. His guitar work is elegant in its simplicity, as he picks out individual notes with the precision of gem cutter splitting a stone to expose the heart that was hidden within the matrix. The notes he plays traces a similar path through his songs, as they follow a line that lead us to the heart that beats inside each tune - its emotional core. Speed isn't important for these songs, in fact it would be the worst thing possible for them. We gloss over emotions in our world by whizzing past them, so Botz's music allows us the opportunity to stay in the moment and properly experience them.
Jake's singing voice is as singular as his songs, and as raw as their content. Like the folk and blues singers of old, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, his voice is that of a person who has experienced the world and seen his share of hardship. Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of it, there is a strength of spirit to his voice that makes these songs positive experiences. In a world where men aren't supposed to express their feelings, here's this guy pouring his heart out in a strong, sure voice that cracks with emotions. If nothing else it's certainly an example for other men to follow about how to be emotionally real.
If you want to see Jake La Botz perform songs from Sing This To Yourself and other recordings he's in the middle of his third "Tattoo Across America Tour", which is seeing him play tattoo parlours from the east to the west coast until the middle of September/08. He's on the East coast right now and about to head south to Florida - so check you local listings because Jake La Botz could be coming to a tattoo parlour near you and you don't want to miss that concert.
Jake La Botz's Sing This To Yourself And Other Suggestions For A Personal Apocalypse is as fine a collection of traditional acoustic blues music as you're going to find anywhere. The fact that it also happens to be some of the most emotionally honest and beautifully passionate music as well makes it even more special. Do yourself a favour, the next time your feeling down, give Jake a listen, his blues are the best medicine that money can buy.
(Originally posted August 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.