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CD Review: Jitney – 86-300

Budget-conscious fans of edgy new indie rock should bookmark Rockproper, the online Chicago label that’s making all sorts of intriguing stuff available, absolutely free. Their latest release is the new one from Chicago indie songwriter Casey Meehan – a real life taxi driver – which takes its title from his cabbie license. To use the word “hack” here would be inaccurate. Jitney is a pleasantly melodic rock project with a heavy 80s/90s British influence that aims to strike a somewhat noir pose from time to time. The songs are terse and smartly crafted with layers of keyboards and guitars, Meehan playing almost all of the instruments himself with the exception of some bass and drums.  

 

After a brief intro, the first song is Butterfly Knife, an imagistic 6/8 ballad recounting an ominous car ride (in the cab?):

 

As he tried to keep his blood red and his money green

She’ll never know the secret life

Of his butterfly knife

 

The next track, Love Draws Blood sounds like 60s backbeat Kinks as covered by New Order, 1985. Dizzy Spells contrasts pounding piano and slinky 80s synth over aptly tricky rhythms: “You were casting dizzy spells.”

 

The album’s best cut is Twilight, a pretty, glimmering, janglerock ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the Madrugada catalog:  “Don’t mistake the twilight for the dawn,” Meehan casually warns. There’s a nice solo on electric piano using a vibraphone setting, then a variation on the theme, Twilight Laser Battle, a synthy sci-fi flavored instrumental. Tricky Be is upbeat, ornate piano pop that reminds of Pulp with nice layers of keys in the playful, tongue-in-cheek style of Candida Doyle. The rest of the album is a basically quick run through what appears to be Meehan’s most-played list on his ipod: late 80s Cure, Tom Waits and the Velvet Underground’s third album. Even so, most of it’s quite pretty.

 

The album’s only drawback is the vocals. Your conformist indie rock crowd won’t notice or care, but for purists they could be a dealbreaker. Much of the time Meehan sings in a cliched, affected, languid drawl that’s as real as a Chinatown Rolex. It’s not clear whether he’s trying to be Richard Ashcroft or that moron from Coldplay, probably the latter. Songs this intelligent shouldn’t sound so clueless in places.

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April 20, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Jay Bennett – Whatever Happened, I Apologize

What a harrowing way to start the new year. This cd hits you with a gale force, bitter, brutal and direct. Even if you try to get out of the way, Jay Bennett – the talented multi-instrumentalist who for all intents and purposes was Wilco until he left the band and Jeff Tweedy decided to become Brian Wilson – will still knock the wind out of you. Most of this cd – Bennett’s fourth solo album –  is just voice and acoustic guitar, occasionally embellished with organ and bass that are so good that you’re left wanting more. While the songs on this album scream out for a full band to flesh them out, even if this is as far as they ever get, that’s fine: they still pack a wallop. Stylistically, Bennett evokes Matt Keating or Richard Buckner in particularly energetic mode: this is smart, terse, gorgeously melodic Americana rock with equally smart, tersely unwinding lyrics. It’s a concept album about a relationship gone awry, spectacularly: this one was doomed right from the start, and if Bennett is to be taken at face value, it’s something of a miracle he got out alive.

 

The cd starts with a road song, just a bit of ominous foreshadowing in the same vein as the Wilco classic Far, Far Away (from the Being There cd), followed by the matter-of-fact, dismissive I Don’t Have the Time. Bennett knows there’s drama coming down the line and he wants no part of it. “I don’t have the good looks, but I know yours won’t last,” he caustically tells the woman. With the next cut, I’ll Decorate My Love, the genie’s out of the bottle, Pandora’s out of the box and all hell breaks loose, setting the tone for the rest of the cd:

 

There will be no profit in protection

Even when you’re walking miles in the rain

I will curse the day I met you

And you will curse the day I lost control

And there will be no reward for your actions

Even when you’re trying to save your lover’s soul…

You were down before me

 

The themes that recur again and again here are missed opportunities and wasted time (go figure), notably on the cd’s towering centerpiece, the big, crescendoing 6/8 ballad The Engines Are Idle:
 
The engines are idle and the trees are all bare

And the issues are clouded and hang in the air

The best part of the story is the part that you missed…

The best part of the record is the part where it skips

And she lost the lyrics and the jacket is ripped…

Cos it’s ageless and timeless but beauty must fade

And you looked so much better when the picture was made

 

The pace picks up and emotions reach a fever pitch on How Dull They Make the Razor: Bennett wants to wait this one out, but he ends up getting dragged in anyway:

 

It don’t matter how dull they make the razor

You won’t feel it when you’re dead 

 

On the next track, Without the Benefit of Sight, Bennett likens himself to a block of ice on a Chicago rooftop in early spring, loosened just enough to become deadly. Exasperation and despair take over center stage:

 

If you want to weigh me down there’s just one layer left

I’ve been repainted so many times it’s anybody’s guess

 

And that’s pretty much where it’s left. Bennett muses on how Hank Williams might have written this story, then throws up his hands and lets that work as a smokescreen: he’s through with trying to cut through the smoldering underbrush, and the songs follow suit. “I lost my best friend last night, I’m working on number two/Won’t you give me a chance cause your chances are through,” he warns on the stark, mandolin-spiced ballad Talk and Talk and Talk. The cd ends with a lament for the world as a whole – the relationship seems to be a microcosm of something far worse – and then with the understatement of Little Blue Pills, “that don’t make you ill – someday they will.”

 

Intensely personal yet not the least bit self-absorbed, this is the best thing Bennett’s ever done. And the best thing about it is that the cd is absolutely free: Bennett is giving it away as a free download at rockproper.com, click here and then hang on, this is not exactly easy listening.

January 5, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments