In the long history of rock music, there have always been two constants. One is a steady stream of pablum spoonfed by the industry conglomerates feeding their own beasts and satisfying stockholders, maintaining corporate expense accounts and living in largesse.
This panoply of easily forgotten music is supported, in no short amount, by the consumers who just HAVE to have that new Usher record. Or are suckered into the Beyonce remixes. Or queue up their digital download device to whatever tortured, guyliner wearing emo-punk of the moment. It is from this well that we drink up the latest Disney creation. The gamut runs from baseless, bald-faced commercialism to high-minded musical royalty.
The other constant is all the music that bubbles under the surface. The “Indie” band struggling to make it on their own with just a scrappy minor label who may or may not have a distribution deal with a major but is still doing things on “their terms” with integrity, fortitude and, if they’re really, really lucky, a spot in the early afternoon on one of Lollapalooza’s stages.
My Jukebox the Ghost LP came in the mail today.
Who? Jukebox the What?
The band’s name shouldn’t ring any bells for you. They get no airplay. They’re not sexy, have no singles and, except for one late summer, underwatched last-minute appearance on Letterman, are virtually unknown to all but those who traffic in the blogosphere (yes, I still call it the blogosphere. Deal with it. I sometimes use “hella” as well). They did get to play Lollapalooza this summer, though. So, their star is on the rise.
Jukebox the Ghost’s first album, Let Live and Let Ghost, was my favorite record of 2008. A compact set of intricate ditties at times relentlessly hooky and, at others, stupefyingly ambitious. The two sets of multi-song suites on that record belie the youthful naivete of the trio that formed out of George Washington University’s undergraduate program. In fact, it was probably just that naivete that allowed them the hubris necessary to pull that record off. Part Ben Folds, Part Queen, Part prog rock, part indie, part power pop, JtG made me so happy that year. And now they’ve returned with a new set of songs, a strong producer Peter Katis (Interpol, the National) and a hundred thousand miles of touring behind them.
And maybe that’s the problem.
The band sounds not quite weary, but not so cheeky as they have been. They’ve never shied away from tackling topics larger than just boy meets girl or boy pines for girl; their last album featured an epic meditation on a wrathful God’s smiting of an earth that disappointed him. And they try to hit those heights again. But they don’t really try that hard.
“Schizophrenia,” the most recent single from the record, follows the toothless but catchy “Empire.” Both are quirky and smart and have one more thing in common: They are each more promise than delivery. On their first album the boys had struck gold with a pair of singles that were priceless in their hummability. “Good Day” & “Hold It In” were spectacular introductory songs and the rest of that album blossomed into a surprising collection of self-assured epics. Everything Under the Sun tries so hard to be a sequel and it almost succeeds. The key being the word almost.
One after another, the guys dabble in that power poppy idiom and, on that first side/half they very nearly succeed. “Half Crazy” is speedy and easy to catch onto. The toy-casio keyboards evoke the early ’80s goofball stuff by the Rubinoos, and that’s super. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, though. And we don’t get back to it until well into the end of the record with “The Popular Thing,” a jangly, backbeat faux soul that calls to mind the Elvis Costello of Punch the Clock and the vocal gymnastics of Russell Mael of Sparks. It’s piffle, but it’s sublime piffle. It’s the kind of track you hear at the end of a Mean Girls/Easy A/Clueless movie. No doubt we will.
In between we are treated to the quite excellent “Empire,” a single which went nowhere and that’s sad, because it’s a little indie earworm — as is the lovely “Mistletoe.”
Jukebox the Ghost tries so hard to prove that they are able — able to play (they most certainly are) and able to write (the aforementioned melodies) — that they forget to have fun.
With 25 songs to choose from written over the past two years I have to wonder what they chose to forgo to include the dull and uninspired pair of “Let Us Create” and “Carrying.”
If you’ve been lucky enough to sit through “Where are All The Scientists Now” and “A Matter of Time” from the first album (please, I implore you to), then you’ve heard the new album’s track penultimate track, “Stars.” It’s no wonder, since they were both written by Thomas Siegal, the lead guitarist. Had “Stars” been included on that first record, no doubt I would be singing its praises. On that album, these epics came out of nowhere, this little trio of guitar, drum and keys and their enormous worldview. Universe-view, really. Those songs were surprises, to be sure.
On Everything Under the Sun, the surprise is over and I’m left cold. Thus, about half of this album I would categorize as redundant. The other half is fine, workman-like indie pop. Everything Under The Sun is, at best, a placeholder. Definitely not the calling card of their first record. Hopefully they’ll get another shot.
Download These: Schizophrenia, Half Crazy, Empire, Mistletoe, The Sun, The Popular Thing
Skip These: Summer Sun, So Let Us Create, Carrying, The Stars, Nobody
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