J.P. Jones, |
Back to Jerusalem
(Vision Company Records, 2000)
As a reviewer here at Rambles, I am seldom disappointed in the quality of a CD -- and often I can count on only the luck of the draw for what selections are sent my way. J.P. Jones' Back to Jerusalem, however, was one of the few I found lacking. Most of my problems arose from the lyrics. I am notorious among my friends for paying attention lyrics for as much as the music, which many listeners don't -- it's a matter of personal taste with which I don't quarrel.
Now, just to be clear, he is certainly not a dismal failure, nor excruciatingly affected. Neither, however, is he all that original or compelling. Despite the disappointments in the words, though, there was also successful melody and rhythm which led me to believe that those with different sensibilities than I would appreciate Jones' latest release.
The strongest aspect of this CD is the music. (And after all, what do we listen to CDs for?) An appealing combination of electronic melodies, traditional South American flutes and jaunty percussion makes for an infectious series of songs, and when he is at his most whimsical, he is at his best. Too often, though, the self-consciously clever lyrics weigh down the effervescence of the music and are too often riddled with cliches. His style of singing, a kind of spoken blues, is not a style I automatically like, though many do.
"Sculpting by Number" is really not a song, just a swelling of electronic beeps and rattles that does graciously lead into the strong guitar and beat of the title track. Jones' voice is low and rough, a true jazz voice which suits the style and content of his music. The delivery is often edged with teasing, though the lyrics tend toward the spiritual and mythical, and the lightness of the tone and the heaviness of the subjects feels strained and set the song off balance. In the end, the sound is a kind of jazz/rock/ethnic fusion of sounds, and some fun backup singers and a wailing guitar lift it to an exciting level. The strength of the music above all buoys this opener.
"Already Been Through It" is a gentler ballad at first, though it builds into a fun stab at funk with the customary horn section. The lyrics are full of laidback storytelling, and though the style is easy and comfortable, the wandering of the lyrics hinders success. At one point Jones even sings "but I digress" and, depending on your taste, that kind of looseness can be taken as charming or lazy.
"Red Hot Blue" is again slow, but has a more dramatic rhythm. Above the lower mass of sound is an elegant South American style of pan-piping, an ornamentation which lends grace to the rougher bottom edges of the song. The songwriting again drags the song down, but the rhythm of the words here seems to be more important than their meaning.
Soaring, angelic voices lead you into "Ain't That Love," and as with many of the songs, the guitar is the definite backbone of the melody. The guitar aspires to a Clapton-esque glory, and doesn't quite make it. The lyrics remain rather pedestrian and often just seem to lose track of their point. The music is again the better half -- the steel drums, flutes, and guitar make it an engaging tune. "Getting Your Way" makes good use of a fiddle and remains one of the better selections on the album. The style of music and lyric for once come together with a kind of fierce reverence, and although the lyrics are again difficult to follow, they create vivid images.
"Works for Me" is also one of the better cuts -- Jones' whimsy is apparent. The beat is rollicking and swings you around, while the "feed your brain" theme is admirable. "As If" reminded me a bit of Cat Stevens at the start, and turned out to be an amusing little ditty which twists and warps folktale cliches and emphasizes the waste of worrying over things you cannot change. Here, Jones manages to be both serious and silly without tripping over his intentions, and alongside "Works for Me" makes the strongest section of the album.
"Dream House" immediately struck me as a song about Very Important Feelings, with its monumental chord progression, and it does again address spirituality. The music is evocative, though the lyrics remain rather muddled and it's difficult to pin down meaning. "In My Own Sweet Time" works better than many, with a less immediately percussive introduction, while the horns pop up again and make the melody jolly. The "promised land" and other such images again make the song feel biblical, though it does change tack a bit and bring such stories into the realm of personal relationships. The crescendo style, a la Ravel's "Bolero," is one that works well.
"Under the Baoboab Tree" is an odd mix of sex and silliness. By mimicking a didjeridu with his voice and bringing in Middle Eastern styled guitar, he seems to be attempting a kind of primal love song very much concerned with carnality, but it ends up more laughable than sensual (which sex can certainly be). It is also bluntly graphic, and though I'd be the last to object to being frank, it doesn't really work and ends up being neither passionate nor humorous -- just puzzling.
"Fancy Guy," the final track, certainly caps off the easy attitude of the singer and album, insisting he likes it plain and true, and "talks a lot but tells it a lot like it is" There's an offputting arrogance behind the song, or independence depending on how you see it, which is not as felt as it might be and thus seems more of a posture than honest feeling. The song does, though, reflect well the philosophy of the singer-songwriter.
All in all, the album is not outstanding, but it does have its good points -- the music and the whimsy. A reviewer who was more likely to enjoy conversational blues may appreciate the album more, as would those who are less concerned with lyrics and are fond of a good groove. The traces of melodrama and monumental issues can be wearing, but the music can work through that.
[ by Robin Brenner ]