Jealous Creatures, Bazooka
Here’s how the whole band-life-trajectory thing is supposed to work: start a band just for the hell of it, at first; then realize hey, maybe this is a pretty cool deal, and begin earnestly working at it; work your way onwards and upwards, honing your skills as you go; decide to break up or soldier on; rinse, repeat.
Sometimes, though, a band seemingly steps out of the box wholly put-together and throws that whole trajectory on its head. Bands like Jealous Creatures don’t start for fun (although I’m sure they do have a good time) and go from there, but instead have what sure seems like a fully-formed vision of who they are and where they’re headed. And boom, they kick things in gear and go there.
I’ll admit to being a little nervous, honestly, after 2011’s stellar Little Heaven Big Sky, mostly because I wasn’t sure where they could head from there. I was already loving the ride; would the band do something to change that, to mess with it somehow? It just seemed like Jealous Creatures were already right where they needed to be; throwing anything else at ’em might break something.
Happily, I’m an idiot. At least, in this case, because with new album Bazooka, the band does change, but not the way I thought they might. Rather than go charging off in some new direction, the band members have apparently knuckled down and honed what they do ’til its sharp enough to cut paper just at a touch.
See, for all that I liked — hell, loved — Little Heaven Big Sky, when I look back at it now I notice that it gets a little scattered at points, a little too let’s-throw-everything-in-and-see-what-happens in terms of the Creatures’ sound. It was a band resume, if you will, where they were determined to show everything they could do, and damn, it was (and is) beautiful, for that.
Bazooka, despite its name, is as focused and tightly-controlled as its predecessor was loose and wide-open. The songs hang together in a far more coherent fashion, each building on the next while holding true to the band’s Western-tinged indie-rock sound.
Take “Painful to See,” for example, an awesome bit of murk-country that includes some great, windswept, far-West-sounding guitars courtesy of lead guitarist Ian Hlavacek. The track’s like the smarter, better-groomed older sibling of some of the songs on Little Heaven Big Sky, sounding like a less-lonely Cowboy Junkies and showing off the band’s talent for guitar lines that are halfway between a melody and a drone, kind of reminiscent of Joel R. Phelps’ solo stuff.
“Worn Down” follows a similar track, albeit in more of an out-and-out spaghetti-Western vein. Singer/guitarist Sarah Hirsch’s vocals almost come out like something from the ’60s, here, and the song itself wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the background of Django Unchained.
Then there’s the more “rock” songs on Bazooka, like “Hurry Up,” where the rootsy-yet-roaring guitars make me think of Social Distortion, of all things. You can almost hear the part where Mike Ness’s gravelly vocals should come barreling in, only Hirsch steps in, instead, with a line that’s both a promise and a warning: “Hurry up, because I’m waiting / We don’t have time to lose / Hurry up, ’cause I won’t wait for you.” Beneath her voice, the song just thunders along nicely, with those thick, distorted guitars clearing the way ahead.
Further on, Jealous Creatures dive into “The Right Idea,” a track that’s interesting because it feels like Hirsch is mad at both the object of the song and at herself for getting sucked in. The music is raw and loud and right in front, like you’re planted in front of the speakers.
Even when the band plays it quiet, they manage to make everything fit like pieces of the same big puzzle. Opener “At the Time,” subtle but bitter and self-hating, sits right next to “Hurry Up” like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and the same goes with the yearning “Fall Tonight,” which incorporates a chorus rhythm torn straight out of the Phil Spector Songbook (and yes, that’s a good thing), despite falling right after the brazen guitars of that same track.
The only oddball of the bunch, really, comes last: “So You’re Leaving Now,” a song that heads straight back to Spector with a great little chunk of throwback countrified soul, complete with organ. If you’d tried to describe the song to me, I wouldn’t have thought it’d work, particularly with Hirsch’s Margo Timmins-meets-Aimee Mann vocals, but it works, and is beautiful besides.
That final track kind of crystallizes the whole thing, by the by, making you step back through the songs that came before and realize that they’re actually kinda-sorta all about a relationship. Not a broken one, necessarily (although yeah, that closing song sure makes it seem like it), but one that requires attention and care.
Hirsch spells it out earlier on, in “Every Single Day,” which is sharp-edged yet also sweet and worried, with her nervous that something’s wrong but not sure what it is or how to fix it. It’s a feeling nearly everyone who’s ever been in a relationship will recognize, and here it’s evoked with a heart-stopping clarity.
Of course, now that I think about it, the trajectory of a relationship’s not that far removed from the trajectory of a band; both sure as hell require work, and a fight doesn’t necessarily kill either one flat-out, at least not immediately.
If you’re smart, and you give a damn, you take a step back and then try it again, and again, and again, until you’ve got it as close to perfect as you can. Here’s to making that climb, as many times as it takes.