Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Review: Joe Jackson - "Rain"

Joe Jackson
Ryko, 2008
Produced by Joe Jackson

I am a completely unapologetic fan of Joe Jackson. Ever since Phil handed down his vinyl copies of Night and Day, Look Sharp!, Blaze of Glory, and Body and Soul I have been completely hooked. Joe is simply everything I love about songwriting. He effortlessly jumps genres to serve the story or the vibe, sometimes from song to song on an album, but just as frequently from album to album. From the New Wave energy of his first three albums to jump-swing, Latin-retro and jazz-pop for the next few to concept albums, film scores, avant-minimalism, a Grammy-winning symphony, and a neoclassical song cycle about the seven deadly sins to 2002's orginal band reunion album, there is no modern musical artist who has explored so many musical styles with greater commitment and facility than Joe Jackson. When Joe has a new album coming out, you never know quite what to expect.

Regardless of what I expected from Joe's new piano trio album Rain, what arrived in my mailbox were ten of the most deftly-written, beautifully-played songs of his storied career. Rain is a deceptively simple-sounding album, just Joe on piano, Graham Maby on bass, and Dave Houghton on drums, all three on vocals, produced simply and elegantly with no tricks or gimmicks. It advances Jackson's songwriting while somehow managing to hearken back to his early years and even back to early Steely Dan and '60s jazz-pop. It is a singular album, somehow modern, retro and timeless all at the same time. And I know I say this every time, but it's one of the best works Joe has ever produced.

Every single song is simply great; true of a few of Joe's records, but maybe never since Night and Day to this extent. I think I listened to "Invisible Man," the opening song three or four times before I even moved on to the rest of the album. The track's syncopated groove and odd vocal phrasing are baffling but completely logical at the same time, and the chorus is just fantastic. It's just a great song; I've been singing the chorus to myself for three days. The third track, "Citizen Sane," reminds me (as a lot of the record does) of early Fagen & Becker, and features strong lyrics reflecting Jackson's recent stands against the gentrificaltion of our minds and opinions: "All you kings and martyrs / All the little girls and boys / Will thank you when you start us / Safely on the way to be Citizen Sane."

Sanity and insanity, not so much real as perceived in the eyes of the fun- and thought-police are recurring themes, along with the sadnesses of lost love, from the melancholy of "Wasted Time" (my favorite track on the album, and the first one I'm going to learn to play) to the abject despair of "Solo (So Low)," which made me weep in my car when I first heard it. There's a bit of the goofy Jackson here, in the throwback "King Pleasure Time" and "Good Bad Boy," and sheer grinning playfulness in "Rush Across the Road." The album's most purely delightful track is probably "The Uptown Train," a toe-tapping homage to the '60s Billy Page instrumental "The 'In' Crowd," which Joe covered on 2000's Summer in the City live album.

An entire album of piano, bass and drums has certain sonic limitations, but Joe transcends these with some of the most intricate and subtle arrangements of his career. Key changes and unusual modulations are everywhere, nowhere more beautifully than in the bridge of "Wasting Time." Chord changes seem to come out of nowhere, but when the phrase ends they are obviously the only way the song could possibly have gone. From a pure songwriting perspective, Rain is one of Jackson's greatest triumphs, and that's saying something. I spend almost every moment listening to this album in sheer delight at the magic of its songcraft. It's a collection of music that reminds me why I love music, and makes me want to go out and make my own.

It strikes me every time I hear Joe play a piano-heavy song how much his piano playing resembles mine. Fairly simple left hand (Joe's because he's leaving room for Maby's bass, mine because I'm a lousy pianist with a left hand like a bunch of bananas), song-serving right hand grooves, and big chords under a dominant vocal line. Never has this been so evident as on Rain, where I hear Joe Jackson playing the piano lines I would have played if I had written these songs. Ironically, I do plan for my next studio album to be a piano trio CD, an idea I've had for about 5 years but which has been solidified by just how beautiful Rain is.

EDIT: Raves coming in for Rain!

"Joe Jackson returns with arguably his most consistent collection yet."

Slant Magazine:
"It's a terrific set of songs ... The nicest surprise is how good the guy's become at writing love songs ... it's a joy to deconstruct the song's craft."

New York Daily News:
"Joe Jackson plays piano on two levels. The way he performs, the instrument has the kick of rock as well as the sweep of Broadway. As both a writer and a player, Jackson is terse in his intonations, but broad in his melodic sense. His work can be tough and beautiful at once. It's hard to miss all that when spinning his latest CD, "Rain," which you should do often.... 'Wasted Time' feels like a classic.... Given the dash of his tunes, and the theatricality of his playing, one wonders why this ambitious man has yet to pen a musical. If Duncan Sheik can do it with 'Spring Awakening,' surely the artist behind 'Rain' can, too." (Thanks, Daily News. I've been saying that for years! Fortunately, a Dracula musical is Jackson's next project.)
"...finds Joe Jackson at his absolute, shimmering best.... The coolest part of Rain, though, might be the musical breadcrumbs Jackson drops in his songs, inviting us along on tour of the many and varied influences from which the accomplished songwriter/piano man draws."

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  • At 2/03/2008 12:52 PM , Blogger Cucumber Jones said...

    Andrew, couldn't agree more. Joe's new album makes Elvis Costello sound extinct. What a great record 'Rain' is - quite possibly JJ's best studio album in a decade. Song after song after song. I smell Grammy Award nominations around the corner!

  • At 2/04/2008 9:40 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    I'm still wrapping my mind around the new record. I'm so used to lush arrangements with orchestration that the sparseness of the trio is throwing me for a loop. The songs on this record don't sound as much like the deliberately rocky "Volume 4" and earlier "Joe Jackson Band" efforts.

    I can't help but think what some of these songs would sound like with the big band and orchestration of "Body and Soul" or "Blaze of Glory".

    Still getting used to the orchestration. Last time I saw Joe live he played a few of these songs (and at least one "new" song that does not appear on this new record) with this same trio arrangement.

    Great songs regardless.

  • At 2/04/2008 3:20 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I'm pretty sure "Wasted Time" is now my favorite Joe Jackson song ever. I just learned it, and as with all Joe is sounds infinitely more complex than it is in real life.

  • At 2/04/2008 8:18 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Thanks for the recommendation, Andrew. I've been a Joe Jackson fan since "Look Sharp!" -- my college band used to play "One More Time" -- but have also been disappointed by his latest (within the last 8 yrs) work. Reviews I've read of "Rain" have been mixed -- but I never know what to make of the established media (can't trust them critics...) Sounds like it's worth a listen.

  • At 2/04/2008 10:10 PM , Anonymous phil hamm said...

    Disappiointed with "Night And Day II" and "Volume 4"? I'm speechless.

  • At 2/05/2008 9:44 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I find his albums of the last 15 years to be his most intriguing: Night Music, Heaven and Hell (adapted into a musical by the Boston Conservatory last year), Symphony No. 1 (finally, a Grammy-winner), the magnificent Night and Day II (which inspired my MFA thesis), two fantastic live albums, and the great retro trip of Volume 4. And no two of those offerings sound the same. Jackson has yet to release an album that doesn't rate three starts or more, to me. I don't say that because I'm a fan; I'm saying that's WHY I'm a fan.

    That said, he really turned his back on pop music for over a decade. (In all fairness, pop music had rather dramatically turned its back on him first, with Virgin commissioning the pure-pop Laughter and Lust, then declining to promote it when Grunge broke.) Joe, being Joe, hasn't been terribly interested in appealing to any particular fan base for a long time; he made his money early, saved it wisely, and started doing whatever the hell he wanted musically for about the last 20 years, sales be damned. The fact that his sales and reviews have been pretty freaking good is a testament to the power of being true to your vision. The sold-out concerts world-wide speak even more clearly.

    Dave: "One More Time," eh? What did you play in the band? That song has great parts for all instruments, especially bass. I've played, in addition to the entireties of Night and Day and Night and Day II, "Be My Number Two," "Is She Really Going Out With Him," "One to One," "Obvious Song," "The Man Who Wrote Danny Boy," and others in various live settings. If I'm doing a set somewhere, especially on piano, you can pretty much bank on my playing one song by Joe Jackson in there somewhere (and probably one by Bruce Cockburn or Rich Mullins). I'm playing at RAPT's "Thirteenth Night" celebration on the 25th, and don't know what I'm doing yet...

  • At 2/06/2008 9:07 PM , Blogger Leapin' Lipid said...

    I am a Joe fan because of Andrew's MFA thesis project. I will certainly have to give this album a listen.


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