I've just had a great idea. When the time comes for a Doctor Who revamp - who better to replace the current Doctor than Jon James? The show could be reconstructed along the lines of those great late-60s and early-70s shows like 'The Monkees', 'Scooby Doo' and 'The Banana Splits' - a little comedy and a little drama interspersed by musical numbers courtesy of the new all-singing Doctor.
Yes, it's true, I've got all caught up in Jon James' vaudevillian world of curios, carnivals, card sharps and top hats. And is it any wonder? Even the album has been divided up into easily digestible acts for my listening pleasure.
The prologue is 'Blue Balls' - a somewhat uncomfortable proposition to say the least for an album opener. And, if feeling uneasy don't come easy, then maybe the Twin Peaks tremolo of the guitar will put you in the mood. Relief is just around the corner as the album ejaculates into 'Happy Hour' which sees the band rocking out in a typically skewed manner. Think Utopia. Think XTC. I mean how many of us have played a Jew's Harp in our lives? And how many times have you heard it on a record? Well, speaking from personal experience, I've been playing the Jew's Harp all my life and I've only heard it on record a couple of times - 'Give It Away' by the Chili Peppers and this our current song.
Unusual instruments and sounds proliferate this record. Xylophones, toy glockenspiels, 'Cowboy Harmony' utilises - to a great effect - some retro Fuzz Face-like guitar tones while 'Cherrycake' employs some sort of Theremin.
Jon James has something of a snarling nasality to his voice which will immediately earn him some Bob Dylan comparisons. Coupled with the esoteric nature of the music I could conjure up a variation of the school yard game 'Pile On' where Francis Dunnery, Enuff Z'nuff and Ether all jump on top of Bob thereby knocking him to the floor and knocking the wind out of him at the same time. And who'd be sitting atop? That would be Jon James.
We've reached the intermission. 'Suck Face Abstract' has the weird distinction of sounding like The Kinks and Guns N' Roses at the same time. I'm not sure how he pulled that off. But that signals the end of Act I.
'Ballerina No. 1' starts Act II with a kind of 70s acoustic lounge jazz samba. Not entirely unlike Aimee Mann actually. Whilst all the songs on this album are pretty poptastic 'Crash Car Superstar' sticks its neck out as the toppermost of the poppermost. Album closer 'Introducing Mr. Tenacity' returns to The Kinks' territory but is otherwise wrapped up in a laid-back easy-listening 70s coating. Sweet.
As I listened to this album the first time I felt myself torn between the plus points of its power pop eclecticism verses the minus point of its vocal Dylanisms. Fortunately for me on subsequent plays the eclecticism seems to be winning the battle and Bob Dylan has taken such a beating that he's barely recognisable now. So an album that I thought I'd only listen to once is fast becoming one that I'll return to from time to time.
This album has an old curiosity shop feel to it – you dig around and keep coming across surprising little obscure gems that delight and amaze you in equal measure. Track six encapsulates this perfectly. It’s called ‘Suck Face Abstract’ (no, me neither…) and starts to play out like an epic Springsteen-esque tale of dustbowl Americana before paradoxically being clipped short at only 45 seconds by a kissing sound effect created using what sounds uncannily like a sink plunger.
There are several theatrical flourishes to the album – its split into two distinct ‘Acts’, with the afore-mentioned mini-track effectively an ‘intermission’. James likes to play up to the role of court jester – the cover art depicts him in various old fashioned theatre posters and costumes, and he conducts the music like a seasoned pro of a circus ringmaster.
The album is packed to the rafters with energy and ideas. There are stacks of riotously loud guitars, glorious melodies bouncing all over the place; and lyrics delivered with tongue firmly planted in cheek. On opening track ‘Blue Balls’ James tells us that ‘All the dance floor romantics / are whippin’ it out / they’re the sloppiest kissers / but scrappy no doubt’
He doesn’t pull off all the ambitious ideas completely 100% - ‘Snake Oil (Beautiful Delusion)’ feels too much like a pastiche of some Deep South drawl. But when he does hit the spot, he really pulls it off in style on numerous occasions - ‘Big Bang Scene’ crashes around inside your head like a Tasmanian devil on heat. ‘Cowboy Harmony’, ‘Crash Car Superstar’ and ‘Ballerina No.1’ all offer up raucous vaudevillian tales of extravagant characters played out against a giddy carnival atmosphere soundtrack.
Final track ‘Introducing Mr. Tenacity’ is billed as a ‘Disclaimer’ and shows his more reflective, contemplative side. It still constantly amazes me when someone actually manages to make individual and original sounding music these days, and this is album is a delightful treasure trove of thrilling surprises.
Jon James has certainly provided a veritable assortment of tunes on this album and possibly the sheer varierty on offer may put some listeners off. Jon James plays the majority of the instrumemts on the album as well as producing and writing the songs. The album definately grows on you after repeated plays although 'Big Bnag Scene' is an instant pop rocker with a gloriously addictive chorus. 'Blue Balls' starts the album off with a gentle refrain whilst 'Suck Face Abstract' is as weird and wonderful as the title suggests. The musical variety is reminiscant of the two 'Apple Venus' albums by XTC, no bad thing in my book. Seek this one out as it is a pop rock/singer songwriter delight. Go grab a copy now!
What if Buddy Holly used a flux capacitor to visit us in present day? And what if he did so under the strict condition that, upon arrival, he had to rock out with powerful, gained-up guitars and make modern-day, chest-beating, pop-stained, hyper-melodic, finger-in-your-eye ROCK? Of course he would still have to wear his '50s garb and horn-rimmed glasses. And he would still have to be polite and sensitive -- especially if you knew him personally. What would the music sound like? Would he be able to pull it off? Would it be a little scary, like he might get hurt making such kick-ass music?
Exciting, dreamy, intimate: Au Contraire! Carnivalish, ambitious, intense: Au Contraire!
I am all of those things too, Mr. James! And I claimed outright ownership of your record immediately upon hearing it! Maybe it was already mine! Maybe it’s actually about me or of me! Or maybe it’s just made for me to use as I wish: “Hey everyone! Watch me listen to this record! Look how exciting I can be!”
Wait a minute. Maybe a little skepticism is in order. Is Mr. James really capable of such an accomplishment? Did someone help him do this? Did this chukka-boot-in-the-chest f**k-force of an album all come exclusively from the inside of his skull? Isn’t this mild-mannered, male-charm-school grad from Loves Park a bit over his skis? Did he, like Mr. Holly, also suffer injury making something so elegantly forceful and apishly big?
Excitement … what a difficult thing to achieve with music, huh?
I guess it’s plausible that I’m just somehow predisposed to love Mr. James’ music. And realizing this possibility is certainly not intended to rob him of any due credit. Au Contraire! It must mean that he is really on to something if I like it.