There was a time when I absolutely loathed the sound of a keyboard. Hated it, I swear. All the keyboard players in the world could've fallen off a cliff, and I probably would've cheered (and the stupid thing is, I actually played keyboard, at one point long ago). I think, though, that it had more to do with the musical setting than the instrument itself; it used to be that when I thought "keyboards," I inevitably thought of Journey's "Separate Ways" -- and that association will fuck anybody up, I imagine. Anyway, this is my roundabout way of saying that my interest in keyboards has only relatively recently been kindled, with late exposure to folks like Gary Numan and recent upstarts like Stereolab, The Rentals, and, in particular, Japanic. I don't think I'm alone, either; after witnessing Japanic not long ago, a friend of mine just shook his head and declared "I've got to get a keyboard."
Of course, I think said friend's response may have had more to do with the band than the instrument itself. And I can't blame him -- those Japanic folks appeared out of nowhere, brandishing keyboards and robo-funky Parliament-meets-Devo beats, and proceeded to invent their own version of the retro "new wave" revolution. Best of all, unlike many bands out there currently digging out their old Rolands and Devo records, Japanic stay away from the overly robotic side of things in favor of something more, well, human. On the title track of their self-produced EP, they make a busride to Hell sound like fun, on "Some Good Advice," they turn quirky, odd-time beeping into a portable dance party. Heck, they even throw in some Velvet Underground guitar snarl on "Fake Fur Lolita" (along with plenty of references to Studio 54). This is future soul, believe it. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Kill Rock Stars -- 120 NE State Ave. #418, Olympia, WA. 98501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.killrockstars.com/)
Jets To Brazil
Orange Rhyming Dictionary
When a friend of mine first heard about these guys, his pronouncement was "emo/indie-rock supergroup," and after a first glance, I had to agree. It's on Jade Tree, for one thing, home of princes of pseudo-emo rock The Promise Ring, has lots of cryptic song titles (and what the heck's an "Orange Rhyming Dictionary," anyway?), and the members of the band used to be in such indie luminaries as Jawbreaker, Texas Is The Reason, Handsome, and The Cro-Mags...the "supergroup" term certainly seemed appropriate.
However, despite my previous prejudices, I have to say that Jets To Brazil are NOT "Jawbreaker/Texas Is The Reason/etc. Mk. II," to my ears. Instead of rehashing any of their previous bands, these guys have decided to actually have fun with the music for once -- and to that end, they've taken a step further back in time, and attempt to conjure up the spirits of The Smiths, Camper Van Beethoven, and even the Psychedelic Furs (listen to "Conrad" if you don't believe that one). Singer Blake Schwarzenbach's train-of-thought wordplay lyrics are still around, thankfully, as is the roaring guitar that was the main reason I loved Jawbreaker, but he shows a hell of a lot more talent than he ever has before, vocally, and a lot more variety song-wise and guitar-wise. Hell, he even adopts a kinda-British accent at times, and almost sounds like Robert Pollard on "Lemon Yellow Black"...
Simply put, this is a pop album, believe it or not. Sure, there are plenty of "rock" moments (the Smashing Pumpkins-esque bombast of "Crown of the Valley" and almost Bush-like "King Medicine," for two), but far more prevalent are poppy melodies, odd keyboard bits, quietly-picked melodies, and even funky drum parts. "Resistance is Futile" sounds like Devo partying over at Cracker's backwoods shack, while "Conrad" wouldn't sound out-of-place on an '80s flashback show. This is a sneaky little gem of an album; the music is interesting, but not too far from the norm for the Green Day- and Barenaked Ladies-listening kids of today, and the band sound like they're having fun. The crafty part, though, is that underneath the cheery pop melodies and "rock" trappings, there's another message, exemplified by the end of the dark, frustrated "I Typed For Miles," when the narrator finally cracks and howls "you keep fucking up my life." A lot of the songs deal with serious, dangerous subjects: suicide, obsession, rejection, and even terminal illness. This is quite possibly the darkest pop album I've heard since Joy Division broke up (well, they didn't "break up," really, but you get my meaning).
Thankfully, the album ends on a hopeful note, with the quiet, almost content-sounding "Sweet Avenue." After all the anti-love songs he's written in the past, Schwarzenbach actually sounds happy for one moment, and looking toward the future. Despite the darkness, it seems to say, everything's going to be alright. (JH/Fall 1999)
(Jade Tree Records -- 2310 Kennwynn Rd., Wilmington, DE. 19810; email@example.com; http://www.jadetree.com/)
Jimmy Eat World
These days, if you describe a band as a "rock band," nobody knows what the hell you're talking about. And how can they? "Rock band" means so many different things to each of us that it's a pretty meaningless description -- for example, when I think of a "rock band," I tend to think of guys with hair down to their asses wailing on guitars and singing like Steven Tyler used to be able to. But somebody else might think of R.E.M., or Matchbox 20, or God knows what (and none of those might be even close to the band you're trying to describe). The billions of subcategories of "rock" make things a bit less confusing, but even then, "modern rock" bands are only modern because they didn't start making albums in the '60s, and "alternative rock" bands aren't, for the most part.
So, it's with a resigned shrug that I have to describe Jimmy Eat World as a rock band. They really, truly do rock, but Clarity crosses so many boundaries that none of the easy categorizations fit. Just when you think you've got 'em pegged as a loud, kinda "emo"-ish band (yet another meaningless adjective, there), they spring something like "12.23.95" on you, with it's delicate drum-machine rhythm and perfect harmony vocals (especially when the two voices trade off on "Merry Christmas, baby"). "Your New Aesthetic" is a roaring, angry indictment of the state of the airwaves today, but then "Just Watch The Fireworks" makes me think of nothing more than '80s-ish pop, particularly the Police or the Outfield (and yes, that's a compliment, at least from me).
My favorite on the CD, "Lucky Denver Mint," features a chorus so crushingly, overwhelmingly beautiful that it kills me, and makes whole hordes of impassioned rockers look overdone and campy by comparison. "Blister," the one song on here where 2nd guitarist Tom Linton gets to sing, is a pop-punky blast. Finally, "Goodbye Sky Harbor" finishes out the album by serving as a microcosm of the whole thing -- a 16-minute epic, it starts like the stranger parts of Weezer's Pinkerton, but transmutes into a swaying, minimal, droney bliss-out fest, suitable for listening to while taking hallucinogens, only to mutate further into stuttering drumbeats, chiming voices, and ethereal keyboards. And most impressive of all, none of it sounds out-of-place.
If there's any justice in the world, Jimmy Eat World will someday soon rule the airwaves. Kids everywhere would buy Clarity and realize rock can be beautiful, smart, and cool all at the same time (yes, even on a -- gasp! -- major label). Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect world, so all I'm really hoping for is that people listen to this and do what the chorus of "Your New Aesthetic" demands: turn off your radio. (JH/Fall 1999)
The sound of people who can really play their instruments and haven't figured out a thing beyond that, Metasexual is as lazy as a "potent," "edgy" and "hard-driving" (to quote the press kit) band can be. Joydrop are so busy showing off that they don't actually see that there's nothing to brag about.
Just like Artificial Joy Club, whose "Sick and Beautiful" befouled the summer airwaves a while back, Joydrop is what happens if you build a version of Garbage that indulged the worst instincts of everybody in the group (especially Butch and Shirley). They mix textured hard rock with electronic sugarcoating into a massively overproduced blender and pour out a flavorless fizz ("Fizz," incidentally, being the name of the first song). It's intriguing for about 2 seconds and then it leaves you with nothing but a burnt tongue.
It's not the general ideas behind the sound that's the trouble. "No One" sounds like a Suede castoff, which is exactly what it would have been if Suede had come up with it. The Foo Fighters and (again, sorry) Garbage have, in "Hey Johnny Park!" and "I Think I'm Paranoid," used ideas similar to those in "If I Forgot," one of the least unlistenable songs on the CD. "Breakdown" starts off almost exactly like David Garza's "Kinder." But you see, that's a real song (which makes Garza's 30-second Best Buy ad on MTV more entertaining than this entire album), whereas just about everything here is just a showcase, especially for lead singer Tara Slone. Her press kit-touted "rich three-octave voice" (who cares?) goes from insubstantial to screechy and unlistenable (sometimes in seconds, as in "Spiders," "Cocoon" and "No One") when she's not just embarassing herself (with help from the faceless band), as in the clumsy hip-hop-inflected verses of "All Too Well" (a bone thrown to label Tommy Boy, perhaps?).
Once you get past the sonic slumgullion, though, that's when the trauma of the words kicks in. Every crevice of Metasexual is crammed with "emotional" (my quotes), "pretty heavy" (the press kit's quotes) lyrics that show all the depth of a bogus high school bohemian, what with being "infused with spiritual and philosophical issues" (press kit again) and all. Lyrics that are treated like episodes of The Twilight Zone abound; the protagonist of "Beautiful" starts off talking about what would happen "if I was beautiful like you," only to pause dramatically and then announce (in heavily processed vocals) "but I'm beautiful like me" as the band slams into horror metal chords. Check mate!
Two final notes on the press materials. They make a big deal about citing the band's credentials, telling which members studied composition and which studied opera and musical theatre. Exactly what you're looking for in a rock band. They also mention that the group formed in 1996, which figures. This is what happens when a band rushes into their first full-lengther less than two years after first getting together. Metasexual is all style and no substance. Without the style, either, just poses. (MH/Fall 1999)
(Tommy Boy Records -- 902 Broadway, New York, NY. 10010; http://www.tommyboy.com/)