For me, unearthing a gem of a band is a bi-polar experience. I want to shout to the rafters about the band — and I do, anywhere I can. And then, after they have been embraced by masses, there is usually a twinge of loss, that they aren’t “mine” anymore.
When I was a teen, this was because the music I loved helped me define myself. And since the band was different, unique, special, then it would follow that I must be as well. At the same time, though, while experiencing the loss of my secret, self-clarifying touchstone, I am buoyed and elated by their success and thrilled when it happens for them — mostly because it means there will be more music from the group and better concerts and also because it vindicates my taste and proves that, well, why not say it? I was right.
All of this brings me to Jukebox the Ghost and their live performance at The Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles.Â But, first, a little history.
The Washington, D.C. trio Jukebox the Ghost first came to my attention by way of the blogosphere. I spent much of 2007 reading blogs like The Underrated Blog, My Old Kentucky Blog, Ickmusic, etc, downloading sample singles and letting those tastemakers be the arbiters of my new musical knowledge. It reminded me much of when I was younger and underground ‘zines like the estimable and legendary Trouser Press heralded the coming of U2, months before Boy was released, or touted the new romantic sound of Duran Duran as they began to make noise in England, eons before “Rio” or “Hungry Like the Wolf.” The music offered for download was like the plastic flexi-disc cutout from that magazine, only instead of one per month, blogs provide hundreds of choices per month.
I can’t recall just what made me decide to listen to “Good Day” and “Hold it In,” the singles offered by JtG on whatever blog they appeared. By the time I heard them, I wasn’t reading the blogs anymore, just using the program Peel to sift through the morass of music. It might have been the weird name. At first I thought it was a typo. “The Jukebox Ghost” sounded more like it. Suitably “indie.” But, in retrospect, had it been named that I probably would have been turned off; most likely a band named The Jukebox Ghost is an ethereal, synth laden, semi-goth experience. Jukebox the Ghost brings to mind a jester spectre. Jughead to Caspar’s Archie.
Whatever it was, I was not prepared for what I was hearing. Both singles are rich wordplay confections that excite as much as they beg for replay. The music is as honest as it is simple. Each tune has that nugget of a hook, a moment that brings you back, the handclap you wait for in anticipation, or a chorus that thrills when you listen and thrills you more when you learn the words and sing along.
This is good stuff, I thought. And my family did as well. After we downloaded the debut album from iTunes, Let Live and Let Ghost, it was entered into heavy rotation at breakfast, in the car, and during lazy Sunday music filled mornings.
The rest of the album didn’t disappoint. “Ambitious” is the precise word I would use while describing it. The two-part suite of “My Heart’s the Same” and “Lighting Myself On Fire” are followed by a three-part suite about the end of the world. The troika of “Fire in the Sky,” “Where Have All the Scientists Gone?” and “A Matter of Time,” where God takes a good look at earth and decides to destroy it, is a fable that is actually quite hopeful. And funny. Jukebox the Ghost are nothing if not funny.
But this isn’t a Presidents of the United States of America funny. It’s not cheeky Bowling for Soup funny. Its not a snarky funny. The trio of Ben Thornewill on piano and vocals, Tommy Siegel on guitar and vocals and Jesse Kristin on drums bring a goofy, indie outlook to their songs. Listen to the chorus of “Hold it In,” the most infectious single track where Ben sings “Life is: [clap clap clap] Oh, my God, if I tell him, he’ll tell her and then she will know I like her! Good grief, I don’t think that I can take this heartbreak any longer!” Charlie Brown was never so clear about his fear of the red headed girl as JtG are here.
It would be one thing if the word-smithing was all this band was about. Plenty of other great groups have leaned heavier on their lyrics than their music or musical ability. Somehow, JtG have managed to bridge the over the top theatrics of Queen, with soaring falsettos, classically-trained piano playing and guitar licks that Brian May used to employ back in the ’70s, and merged it with the intimately youthful exuberance of Ben Folds’ best work of the ’90s. Toss in a dash of Oingo Boingo (believe it) and this band has crafted a sound so new and so familiar at the same time.
Word came through the band’s MySpace site that they would be (finally!) playing in Los Angeles at, of all places, the Museum of Natural History, as one of the featured bands during the First Friday event that the museum holds. It’s a hipster affair where the museum is turned into a culture-fest/nightclub. Amidst a guided tour of the Paleontology exhibit and the author-led discussion, “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters” with Dr. Don Prothero, on the first floor the main attraction is the concert series.
In the great mammal hall, where stuffed bison and other ominous red-blooded beasts we have conquered reside, a stage is set for a festival-seated, general admission audience. The show is projected on the wall in the anteroom outside the hall near the lobby and wine drinking indie poppers sway and chatter the night away.
For those of us who found our way into the main room, we were treated to a claustrophobic, over heated, fan-less room, fronted by a stage nowhere near high enough for a piano-led band to be seen.
Jukebox the Ghost was, to my chagrin, not the main attraction. I should have known better, considering the bill, but I am not a fan of The Bird and the Bee. I am glad, though, that such a darling of the indie community would be the reason so many got to see the better of the two bands. (It’s not quite fair for me to say; we didn’t stay for Bird.)
There was a palpable mix of interest and apathy in the room. As the band was introduced it was obvious that there were some in the audience that were “in the know.” And the curious around us were very forgiving, withholding judgment until they gave the band a chance. One thing I do appreciate about the modern fan is the abject willingness to accept the “new.” It seems that bands are given the chance to succeed or fail on their own merit and that judgment is reserved, as though these music lovers are so passionate and hungry that they seek out rather than dismiss.
Of course, the back of the room was a din of conversation. So the battle was on, the band up on their dais, out to conquer the uninitiated and the hipsters who were just in the room to save their place for the band they really were there to see.
Jukebox the Ghost opened their set with “Under My Skin,” one of the more accessible songs from the first half of the album, the more poppy, radio-ready side. It was about this time that the guys in front of us who were gently swaying to the song (which is about as unswayable a tune as I would imagine), turned to ask us, “Who are these guys?” We smiled and told them and went back to singing along.
Then Ben and the boys did something I would never have imagined doing when I was in a band: they launched into not one, but two songs from their new, as yet unrecorded new album. “Empire” and “Ghosts” were remarkable choices considering they are wholly unfamiliar. Poppy, yes. And well within the idiom of the band, but why, when their cover of “A Beautiful Life” from the Guilt By Association compilation from last year would be more easily endearing, did they make their second and third salvo total unknowns? Even “Mistletoe,” the new-ish track that has been making the rounds among fans for the past few months would have seemed a safer choice. But this is, as I have already implied, an audacious trio.
No sooner did they right their ship with the familiar “Victoria,” a track that has been getting a modicum of radio play way at the left of the dial, did they launch into both of the epic album suites. Back to back. And they sounded amazing. Considering the challenging acoustics of the room, Thornewill’s falsettos were spot on. The harmonies were devastatingly glorious intervals amidst a palette of almost operatic pop epics.
By the time they started to bring it home with those well blogged tunes, “Hold it In” and “Good Day,” their job was complete. The audience had caught on and were catching on to the choruses. The clatter of conversation in the back had reduced itself to a low drone. And the previously curious and ignorant were raising their hands in time and tempo and cheering as though they had just discovered their new favorite band.
As we made our way out of the hall, past the outstretched queue of fans waiting to be let in for The Bird and the Bee, we spent a few minutes chatting with Ben and Tommy. Unassuming and without pretension as they were, I left wondering if they knew just how affecting their performance was.
They are coming back to Los Angeles in May. We are already marking our calendar.