Cleveland has a reputation for being a sort of American cultural black hole, but like a lot of bad reputations, it isn’t entirely deserved: having spent an enjoyable February weekend in the city, I can vouch for its ability to charm even under sheets of freezing rain. And then there’s Joshua Jesty, the Cleveland-based artist whose new album, Girl, is the best release from an unsigned artist I’ve heard all year.
I didn’t think I’d feel this way at first — Girl bursts out of the gates with “Somebody Worth Hurting,” a dramatic, nicely tension-filled chunk of ’90s-style alt-pop that’s heavy with the sort of tuneful self-loathing people couldn’t get enough of 15 years ago. I wasn’t one of those people, so although “Hurting” is undeniably well-crafted, I wasn’t expecting to get anything more than a mildly pleasurable case of dÃ©jÃ vu out of the album. I mean…bright pop hooks mixed with lyrics like “you’re somebody worth hurting” — it really wasn’t that long ago that we couldn’t escape from this stuff, was it?
Well, no. But most of it wasn’t anywhere near as smart and tuneful as Girl, an album that blends classic pop songcraft with the lo-fi energy of the ’90s flannel brigade without sacrificing the kind of subtly layered production that turns an album into an honest-to-gosh listening experience. It’s that craft that sets Girl apart, as well as Jesty’s gift for knowing how to walk the line between making an arrangement interesting and letting it become overbearing. He doesn’t go overboard with effects here — the drums are nicely dry and punchy throughout — but he does make it clear plenty of thought went into each recording, adding headphone touches, like the shakers on “You Make Me Feel Like Dying,” while making good use of space and atmospherics, as shown with the warm washes of synths that add haunting heft to “I’m Not Worried.”
All of this wouldn’t mean as much if Jesty weren’t a razor-sharp songwriter — and confident enough in his songs to let them take their time sneaking up on you — but Girl showcases a mature, thoughtful talent that’s as comfortable with the quiet and somewhat abstract (“From Invisible” contrasts a nifty bass line with a lead guitar that descends, skitters, bends, and echoes back on itself) with the wonderfully bombastic (“One Night Fall” is built out of a twisting network of vocals that eventually burst over an instrumental background that swells in a pleading cacophony). Jesty also understands the art of mixing things up — sixth track “Some Other Someone” offers a quiet interlude with one vocal and a nylon-stringed guitar, and “Don’t Make Me Fall for You” blossoms out of a drum machine program and guitar track that sound like Joy Division crossed with Paul Simon’s Graceland, eventually broadcasting a test pattern riff over beautiful, chiming rhythm guitars and a plangent melody.
The marketplace for digitally distributed DIY singer/songwriters gets more crowded every week, and Jesty’s more than got his work cut out for him when it comes to cutting through the static and finding his audience — especially way the hell out in Cleveland. But if you love a good love song, do yourself a favor and check out his wares at MySpace and YouTube. Or hey, do us all a favor and just buy the damn album — you get the thrill of fishing in the digital flood and picking out a winner, and odds are it’s better than whatever you’re listening to right now.