Jim Neversink releases new music after a decade-long hiatus
In different corners of the world, there are those who are quietly giving thanks for the arrival of new music from local legend Jim Neversink.
Coming in the form of EP No Wah-Wah, for those who love this maverick artist, the five new recordings – his first in more than a decade – will be kept close and treasured, in the way of objects that you’ve chosen, sometimes inexplicably, to travel with you through life.
Since the release of his self-titled debut in 2005, Jim Neversink – born Michael James Whitehead – has had that effect on listeners. “Fans” is too mild a word for those who’ve fervently followed the career of this artist and songwriter, even before he moved to Johannesburg in 2001, and began fully inhabiting the Jim Neversink moniker.
In the early nineties, Neversink formed Famous Curtain Trick with Nadine Raal, releasing two major label albums – Famous Curtain Trick (EMI, 1995) and Land of no Cadillacs (Universal, 1996) – and providing more evidence of the cresting creativity that marked Durban in the nineties. At the time, the group sounded like few others in South Africa, offering a slate of songs that were part rock, part pop and a lot of country and, for a few years, Famous Curtain Trick had a great run, playing all the big festivals and supporting several international names on their South African tours.
What stood out most in Famous Curtain Trick was Neversink’s guitarwork – on a homemade lap steel and a wonderfully expressive electric. But what was only hinted at was the songwriting that would surface on a trio of albums – Jim Neversink (2005), Shakey is Good (2008) and Skinny Girls Are Trouble (2010) – and now, finally, an EP of new music.
In Neversink’s hands, songwriting has the weight of the very best literature, easily inhabiting the landscape of a writer like Raymond Carver, conjuring up vivid vignettes of loserdom. Are they autobiographical or fictional? Does it matter? Neversink’s songs are funny, tragic, lurid, heartsore, lyrical… never smug, patronising or glib. And, like the author who’s out there making the case for her cast of characters, never judging them, it’s the characters who populate his flickering wide-screen imagination and that can’t help but infiltrate yours. In Neversink’s world, they are losers, abusers, ex-lovers, misfits, wastrels, mail-order brides, cripples, outsiders, cheaters and damaged romantics, working people who carry life’s scars proudly and inescapably and maybe meanly, but just as likely tenderly.
Anchoring these is the music that Neversink has previously described as “loserbilly rock” and country or alt.country. He’s also been likened to Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Lou Reed and Roy Orbison. All of these fit in different ways, but none quite capture what it feels like to immerse yourself in Neversink’s world – in the case of No Wah-Wah, for a short near-15 minutes.
With its underpinning drone, EP opener “Man’s Best Friend” comes by way of The Beatles’ The White Album and Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs. Unsettling in its telling of someone whose dogs “hate him so much they would rather eat him”, the cracked details of the lyric (“listening to a phone laying on its side/the voice is small and whining/packing all the things I need to hide/when I go out walking”) make for a setting that each listener will fill in for herself. The sketch and the plasticity of Navesink’s lyrical screenplay is an unsettled piece that the listener completes on listening – and never less than uneasily. You fill in the details and wonder what they mean and what they say about Neversink. And, disconcertingly, about what that might say about you.
Neversink’s characters occupy zones of unease and anguish and uncertainty. His rendition of the South African classic “Master Jack” – written by David Marks in the late sixties – is typically fretful. “I’d better move along before you change my mind…” is a line that has both personal and universal dimensions, and Neversink delivers it with pained Vic Chestnutt-esque vulnerability. He takes the song, in 2023, to a new place, updating it, albeit with an anachronistic Hank Marvin solo; not merely covering a song he likes but inviting it to sweep through and over him like a sad spirit. Walk Out Songs gives the EP its title and it’s howler of a near-throwaway that most bands would build into a live behemoth. It rolls and swaggers like early breathless Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds circa Tender Prey.
Producer of tremendous talent
No Wah-Wah reunites Neversink with Matthew Fink, a Johannesburg-based producer of tremendous talent, who produced Neversink’s first two albums and played in his live band for years. Fink’s treatment of the songwriter’s vision is sensationally realised with a sound that envelops, anchors and drives the songs into the memory. Like Neversink, Fink found his musical footing in Durban and has no trouble unearthing the musical language to complete Neversink’s tale of a not-very-good guitarist playing in a “filthy harbour bar” in “Walk Out Songs”, or those wandering the morning streets, having not yet slept, in “Life”. Both evoke the folds of Durban’s underbelly, something Neversink soundtracked when he was asked by Andrew Worsdale to compose the score for Durban Poison which won “Best South African Feature Film” at the 34th Durban International Film Festival in July 2013.
The only Neversink recording not produced by Fink is 2010’s Skinny Girls Are Trouble, which was produced in Johannesburg and New York by Richard Lloyd, former member of the legendary new wave/punk rock band Television. In an article about South African alt rock acts targeting international audiences that I wrote for Billboard in April 2009, I quote Lloyd as saying that “Anyone who hears this record and allows it to wash over them will be irrevocably changed and for the better”.
Listen to No Wah-Wah and you’ll see that this hasn’t changed. Neversink has been based in Copenhagen since December 2009. There he is a founding member of Frederiksberg Country Club, a local scene for live experimental music of all genres. As yet, he has seldom played publicly but plays in private with people such as Justin Schoening, a Danish artist. “He’s an incredible Noise/Electronica musician who has truly inspired me and we work off each other,” says Neversink. “We try to get together every week, and drive each other crazy. We build toys (music machines) for each other as gifts.”
No Wah-Wah precedes a full Neversink album that will be called Walk Out Songs. They are drawn from a treasure-chest filled with hundreds of songs. “I spend my days writing songs,” says Neversink. “I have five external hard drives that are almost full of songs and demos that only I have heard. For this EP, I pretty much plugged in one and it just so happened that it’s the 2011-2013 drive.”
Those who’ve never given up on Neversink, say Amen. DM/ ML
No Wah-Wah releases through Present Records / The Good Times Co on 17 March. Neversink will perform a homecoming gig to launch No Wah-Wah at the Radium Beer Hall in Johannesburg on 25 March. For bookings contact Andy at 083-542-1044.