The one time I met Twelve Canons main-man Jim DuRocher in person, I was in Iowa City to play trumpet as part of a dozen-piece all-star lineup backing up Samuel Locke-Ward for a set for the 2008 Mission Creek Festival. The lineup included Rachel Feldmann (Lipstick Homicide) on double bass, Ross Meyer (Rusty Buckets) and Grace Locke-Ward on drums, Alex Body on keyboards, sax-man Pete Balistrieri, Brian Boelman on trombone, and some other folks I hardly know, plus Sam of course, and Jim, who played one of those long-necked banjos that looks like it’s supposed to have a dancing skeleton playing it. We’d had a couple rehersals before that but I didn’t recall seeing Jim at those. As we drove ’round to Jim’s apartment to pick him up, Sam kept telling me, “you’ve got to get some stuff from Jim’s band Twelve Canons, it is awesome.” And indeed they ended up hooking me up with copies of the Volume One/Volume Two and Volume Three: Holy, Holy, Holy CD-Rs. Back at Sam’s place a bunch of us pitched in cutting out and assembling CD-R covers for Sam’s merch. Jim found a bottle of whiskey in a cupboard and invited me to join him in a drink or three. We probably polished off the bottle, and got to chatting. I got hyper-drunk-mouth and ended up later outside the gig trying to convince Jim that he had formerly lived in Cedar Falls because I thought he looked really familiar. He didn’t recall having lived there, and in fact he probably never did, but I think I had him wondering. Anyway, it’s a good memory, I really liked the guy and really liked the Twelve Canons stuff once I got back home and gave it a listen. I ended up keeping up on Twelve Canons, a project established for the purpose of making “evil, evil folk music,” via the internet.
Jim DuRocher’s creaky vocals and nimble fingerpicked banjo or nylon-string classical guitar, perfectly suit the creepy themes of his lyrics. Twelve Canons songs conjure a dark, disturbing, haunted world and then pull you into it. One would be justified in being concerned about what’s inside Jim’s head. I had caught rumors here and there that he tended to drink over-much and moved from one living arrangement to another as he got thrown out of them, but when I heard a couple years later that he was in a mental institution, I actually wondered for a moment to what degree it might have been a bit of either artistic stunt or method-acting on his part. A video surfaced on YouTube of Jim performing his scary songs solo for an audience of his co-residents at the facility he was in, who are hidden in the video by large black rectangles at the bottom of the frame. “This song is about my favorite hallucination, the DT’s,” he introduces one paticular number. It’s a great document of his live performing style.
The man does have real issues, though they mainly have to do with the intense hold alcohol has on him. He has since moved among a few different facilities in Iowa, but this hasn’t stopped him from making another album with the help of an old friend from Des Moines, Justin Norman. (I didn’t even know Jim was originally from Des Moines until I read the recent Cityview article.) That album, Volume Four: Sacrifice is the first Twelve Canons release to sport a pressed disc and a glossy full-color cover.
The difference in format and packaging is matched in production. Where Volume One/Volume Two and Volume Three: Holy, Holy, Holy sounded clean but homemade, probably recorded live in somebody’s living room with Jim, Sam Gold on violin, Alex Body on keyboards and the occasional saxophone or recorder, and possibly one or two others seemingly all gathered ’round the microphones playing and singing together, Sacrifice places Jim and his guitar in front of lush, impressively detailed, but nonetheless entirely computer-constructed orchestra-in-a-box arrangements by Norman, who besides composition and sequencing is credited with bass guitar and some vocals. This has to be at least in part by necessity, as Jim can’t very well invite a group of buddies over to the institution for a jam session.
It’s quite impressive what Norman is able to do with sequencing — you hear pianos, strings, woodwinds, organs, harpsichords, bells, various sound effects and bits of percussion, all rendered realistically enough to be comparable to what admittedly little I’ve heard of Chad O’Neal’s Left Is West stuff, adding drama at almost every conceivable moment with dynamic swells, though occasionally Norman has enough sense to just let Jim and his guitar speak for themselves for a few seconds. Still the production values are a bit of a double-edged sword: the professional recording quality reveals the striking beauty of Jim’s guitar playing, but in comparison to the grittier early works, the perfect cinemascope sound and “performance” of the arrangements can come off a bit Tim Burton, especially on “High Ho”, a song about murderous hallucinatory gnomes coming after children.
It could be the clearer recording of Jim’s voice lifting a veil of mystery over the lyrics, it could be trying to compensate for the gloss, but it seems as if Jim is going for a bit less subtlety in these songs. Heck, the first line out of his mouth on the album is “let me kill you.” About as blunt and to the point as it gets. This amplifies the disturbing factor of the songs to an almost painful extent by refusing to shroud their meaning in too much abstraction, especially when it comes to the kinds of themes explored in the lecherous depravity of “Goddess Of Love”, the kidnapping tale “No Getting Out”, and especially “Daddy Longlegs”, wherein the protagonist extols the love of an incestuous father who apparently is the Devil himself. “When the Spirits Leave Me” addresses Jim’s alcoholism directly and is probably (hopefully?) the most personal song on the album, and a surprising but welcome moment of tenderness is found in the form of the two-part “The Spirit of Pregnancy and You In the Nude.”
Justin Norman marshals swirling sounds and voices into playing the part of the darkness that encroaches and closes in through the final trio of songs, beginning with a look back at better times in “Those Were the Days”, and by the end of “I Guess It’s True What They Say”, all hope is gone, crushed. In reality though, the album shows quite a lot of hope for Jim, since the fact that it exists at all is testament to his unwillingness to let his circumstances get him down or stop him from doing what he is driven to do, which is to create some of the darkest songs ever conceived. With some of his most harrowing writing yet given the most realized and accessible treatment his work has ever had in recorded form, Volume Four: Sacrifice has high hopes of drawing as many curious new visitors as possible into Jim DuRocher’s dark world.