Review: Joe Jackson - "Rain"
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."
"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."