Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Joe Jackson - Rain


It was quite unexpected when my brother walked into rehearsal one night way back in 1979 and announced that “Steve Miller” had a new record out that blew him away. He told us the name of the song was Is She Really Going Out With Him, and that it rocked hard with great lyrics. Back then we didn’t have much respect for Steve Miller. We didn’t hate him like we hated ELO, but his relentless barrage of inane, repetitive and derivate tripe was a constant reminder that no one was interested in our quirky brand of pop music rife with odd rhythms, non-standard time signatures and inside-joke lyrics. Looking back on those days it’s no wonder. Steve Miller’s music was catchy and very radio friendly and ours wasn’t. It was only a day or two after that we found out that it was of course not Steve Miller, but this new cat named Joe Jackson. I picked up Look Sharp and have been a fan ever since, in spite of more than a couple of subsequent misfires and disappointments.

The oft misused word eclectic is entirely apt in describing Jackson’s catalog. His musical output has run the gamut from pop to swing to reggae to salsa to jazz to modern classical. While his choices were often confounding to his audience and counter-productive to his career as a recording artist, the emphasis was always on artist. Joe Jackson has consistently been true to himself, composing and recording music according to his own tastes, seemingly unconcerned with current trends or commercial appeal.

I’ve been listening to Rain for about 6 weeks or so. If I’m going to give my opinion of an album, I want to live with it for a few weeks and give that opinion the chance to mature. I never could understand how music critics could listen to a record once or twice and then write a review. This works for a movie, but not for a record. Sometimes new music hits me one way on first and second listen and then transforms into something else upon subsequent auditions. I remember being completely taken by The Knack’s My Sharona the first time I heard it but by the 5th or 6th time I couldn’t get to the next station fast enough. Conversely, the first time I heard Steely Dan’s Aja I was somewhat underwhelmed. After living with it for about a week it became and remains to this day one of my favorite albums of all time.

The first couple of times through Rain I noticed that he was going falsetto more often than I would normally expect. He was actually asked about this in an interview contained on the bonus DVD and he said that he had some trouble singing the notes. I’m not sure how much this new information influenced the change in that opinion, but after some time I found the falsetto less annoying and more endearing.

Jackson chose to record this album as a trio, with his most excellent original band members Graham Maby on bass and drummer Dave Houghton. When I first heard about the “stripped down” instrumentation, I was expecting to be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

Invisible Man opens the album, and it’s perhaps one of the most accomplished songs of his career. Musically it’s reminiscent of Katy Lied era Steely Dan. The arrangement, instrumentation and especially the piano playing are all stellar. I’ve found Jackson’s lyrics over the years to be spotty. Some of his songs seemed vague and even ill-conceived lyrically (It’s Different for Girls) while others were concise and compelling (On the Radio.) The lyrics on the opening track are nothing short of inspired. After initial success in his early career followed by some brief almost-comebacks here and there, he seems to be reveling in his relative anonymity, free to be exactly who he wants outside of the bogus scrutiny of MTV and the rest of the crap music culture.

Hey - can you hear me now
As I fade away
And lose my ground
Maybe you'd like to know
What I'd have to say
If I was still around

Now I'm made of smoke
You see through me
It's the strangest joke

Can't touch the Invisible Man
Can't stop the Invisible Man

Why did the lights go down
Or onto someone new
Well let them learn
I used to own this town
Now I'm watching you
Now it's my turn

Now I'm made of mist
Will you know
When you've been kissed

Can't touch the Invisible Man
Can't stop the Invisible Man

Now I'm almost free
Disappearing
Don't cry for me

Can't touch the Invisible Man Can't stop the Invisible Man

These are the musings of an artist who is at peace with his circumstances, and indeed happy with them. This was completely evident at the show I attended last Saturday in Atlanta. His set relied heavily on the new record which thrilled our little group, but the people who were there just for the hits weren’t disappointed either. He even covered an obscure song (Inbetweenies) by Ian Dury!

On Rain, the good songs just keep coming. Wasted Time is a ballad of lost love with a haunting, memorable melody. The Uptown Train is a jaunty jazz ditty reminiscent of Night and Day, musically a little lighter and carefree, though the lyric suggests something a little darker. As he informs us in the last verse:

They say -
Take it slow when you're breaking the mold
Got to pay what you owe or be out in the cold
And they don't care to know what you know or to go through the pain
To change
To the Uptown Train

There’s a solo piano song, slow and downbeat about persevering through loneliness, aptly titled Solo (So Low) with some pretty depressing lyrics. Here’s the opening:

Solo - It isn't a dream
So low - It's just what it seems
An empty thing
Waiting on somebody who never calls
Listening
In the night to something scratching round behind the walls

And the close:

Chances are few
To try to be
Someone new
Though one gets to play
With no referee
Peace at last
Guaranteed

At the concert he said that the song hints at better things to come, but it doesn’t leave me with that feeling. Joe’s sexual preference has always been a matter of speculation, and his lyrics are often I think deliberately ambiguous. As an example, on Too Tough he sings:

I know you think that I protest too much I’m like a Diva with the tragic touch

but on Rush Across the Road he sings:

Of all the streets in the world
You walk down this one
And I see three hundred girls
But just want to kiss one

Regardless, one can’t help but get the sense that his life has been plagued by failed relationships, and Solo does nothing to dispel that notion. Before you have a chance to feel too badly though the band breaks into the aforementioned Rush Across The Road which will bring a smile back to your face and have you tapping your foot by the first chorus. His piano playing on this track as on others is stunningly gorgeous.

Rain is an instant classic and history will judge it as one of Joe Jackson’s best releases, certainly up there with Night and Day, though it won’t enjoy the same popularity. That’s a pity, because it’s a brilliant record. The songs go down effortlessly upon first listen and continue to improve with age. Every aspect of the album from beginning to end is superb. Joe’s songwriting, arrangements, singing and piano playing all reflect an artist at the top of his game, and not at all the has-been that one might expect from someone whose last hit record was in the early 80’s. If you’ve been craving a new collection of sophisticated pop songs informed by some jazz, latin and a touch of classical music, look no further. This is it

1 Comments:

Anonymous wilson said...

Many thanks for the recommendation. I'm a long-time fan and sure enough forget to catch up so I'll check it out. My favorite is "Blaze of Glory".

Steve Miller's most well known work is actually all a recycling of material that is on Anthology - a pretty good record.

1:54 PM  

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