Album of 2010?
Well, perhaps. Certainly Jon James’ sophomore effort, Au Contraire, casts a wide range of seedy characters – each of them impish at best, some of them downright deviant. Suspicions would be well-founded. James manages to embody silver-tongued huckster, dark soothsayer and sideshow savant with equal ease, engaging the listener in a relentless harangue that might prove exhausting save for one incontrovertible fact:
This is mighty catchy stuff.
A dizzying array of riffy hooks and dexterous turns-of-phrase lies within. Throughout, James pays unapologetic tribute to numerous eras and genres without seeming concern for the consequence of mixing and matching his poisons. The result? Combustible, of course.
Whereas his debut, Jon James & The Trashcan Fantasy Danceband, was a clearly nostalgic nod to ‘70s power pop and glam icons, Au Contraire sees James coming into his own as both songwriter and stylist. And while influences can still be heard at multiple turns – there are easily 10,000 reference points from across the musical map – his palette seems sufficiently savvy that things end up sounding largely, dare we say, fresh.
What we have here is a collection of songs with the nerve to offer what many contemporary rock-n-roll albums seem to lack: genuine point of view.
Or shall we say points of view? Because, given the dozen or so volatile characters presented here, the charm of Au Contraire lies precisely in the many layers into which the narrative can be read. James offers up equal parts vapid pop-philosophy and biting social satire. The roles cast are rife with certain fatalism – disguised as slapstick, entendre and superficiality – and vice versa. The voices are at once narcissistic yet self-deprecating, obsessed yet ambivalent; the tone clearly critical of the vanities of modern life and, indeed, the trappings of rock-and-roll itself, which James seems to present with equal parts fascination and revulsion.
And that, dear friends, is precisely the thrust. Au Contraire leaves one guessing at every turn. James gambles all from the offset, opening with "Prologue: Blue Balls," a country/western-inspired, tongue-in-cheek lament about the unrequited tedium of a two-bit, small time musician. Replete with baritone guitars, baby toy instrumentation and a lonesome clip-clop saunter, the song is playful and sardonic, but hardly indicative of what’s to come. Once it fades to black – bam! – game time begins and we're 180-degrees full tilt into James’ own spin on Guitar Hero™. Track two, "Happy Hour," is a smash-and-trash pop-punk gem, while three, "Cowboy Harmony," treads deftly between power-chord entendre and whiskey dick discoteque. Next, "Cherrycake" flirts with '80s hair glam (pre-pubescent and shame-free), and "Big Bang Scene" is a blistering exposé of hypersex-charged nightlife.
James lends a quick breather with micro-symphony, "Intermission: Suck Face Abstract," after which we're transported into altogether new territory; an obvious tip-of-the-hat toward the pacing change one might encounter with a flip of vinyl LPs of old. In point-counterpoint fashion, if wine, women and song are focal points of the album's first half, the latter gazes through a lens of compulsion, affliction and pathology.
The wounded adult to James' wild-eyed youngster, "Ballerina No. 1" is lush yet menacing; a cryptic, gender-bent lament ripped straight from the co-dependency handbook. "Snake Oil (Beautiful Delusion)" winds itself karmically around layers of percussive loop and Tibetan chant as James grasps vainly for some elusive ambrosia. "Crashcar Superstar," easily the most ethereal track on the CD, sets today's culture of fame-at-any-cost against humanity's ever-fragile psyche, while "Tester's Redux" hurls a vaporous, puke-in-the-gutter f**k-all toward the furious pace of commercialism. Just as "Tester's Reprise" ushers things into blissful numbness, "Blip on The Radar" comes lunging back with its quirky, suicidal send-off (and guitar solo that might even do Papa Zappa proud).
And that would seem the ideal place to put a fork in James' mercurial yarn ... if it weren't for curveball encore, "Disclaimer: Introducing Mr. Tenanacity." Sober, vulnerable and humane, it undermines all the raucous, wiseguy antics James employs throughout the twelve preceding tracks, raising the possibilty that everything proferred has simply been an enormous hoax.
Mr. James' take on that theory?
"Never trust a Gemini. Or vodka."