Curlock & Jalaiso, 2011
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/21/2011
It’s always a challenge for the listener when an artist you genuinely admire tries something different. In the abstract, you absolutely want to hear them grow and change and push the envelope; that’s what art is supposed to do. When the changes are significant enough to fundamentally alter the vibe of the music, though, things can get a little dicey. Will the audience come along for the ride, or be left behind?
Jean-Paul Vest, a.k.a. Last Charge Of The Light Horse, created two of my favorite independent albums of the past decade, 2005’s Getaway Car and 2008’s Fractures. On both, Vest’s sound was rootsy Americana, intense yet organic vocals and electric guitars over muscular bass and drums. These albums are fresh and raw both lyrically and musically, brooding and uncluttered triumphs.
After a couple of listens to baseball fan Vest’s new five-song EP, I can’t imagine a more appropriate title for it than Curve. For this EP, largely created in Vest’s New York bedroom before being shipped to Los Angeles for embellishment by co-producer/mixer Jim Watts, feels like one big 12-6 curveball.
The feeling is there immediately, as Vest leads off with a thoroughly reimagined new version of a song from Fractures, the subtlely retitled “Something (Else) Out of Nothing.” Featuring the same lyric and core melody as its predecessor, this version nonetheless inhabits a completely transformed arrangement rife with loops and synths, with Vest’s previously jangly guitar isolated to keening, shifting single notes and feedback. Is this what Neil Young might sound like if he was produced by Thom Yorke?
“Along The Curve” features the precisely strummed, surging guitar that’s been more typical of Last Charge’s oeuvre, but the drums often skitter, the vocals have a rather languid and dreamy feel, and there’s a synth figure lurking in the middle of the mix that adds an otherworldly texture. Lyrically, “Along The Curve” cements the theme for this EP with these haunting lines: “Traveling at this speed / Our love seems a ghostly, fragile thing / To depend on so completely / When the headlights won’t reveal where we’re going / Just the next few feet.” Because you know what the opposite of love is, don’t you? It’s fear. And doubt. And insecurity.
“In a Dead Calm” gets even spookier, an ominous rhythm pattern and eerie piano figure dominating the verses before the song blossoms on the choruses with lush background vocals and Hammond organ amplifying its dreamy quality. “Falling, like slow friction winds down a spinning coin / If it’s still love, it’s not one I know / Falling, like slow friction winds down a spinning coin / If you ask me, I could almost let go.” The death of a relationship, or just plain death? Either way: brr.
“Lately” launches with electronic rhythm section and piano, powering ahead in the choruses with heavy acoustic rhythm guitar. The lyric is among Vest’s finest and most direct, explicitly about the fraying of a relationship to the brink of dissolution; it starts with “Lately in these too-cloudy, too-bright days / My love for you plays keep-away / Sits in a treetop from morning til noon / And mocks me like a high, uncatchable tune”—and only gets more dire from there. I only wish the captivating intimacy of the lyric was matched by the digitized rhythm section, which feels distant and disconnected.
“Right Around The Corner” closes things out riding a foundation of rather tribal-sounding acoustic drums under a steady, thrumming guitar riff and Vest’s urgent vocal. Dense percussion adds textures that remind me a little of Paul Simon’s Graceland-era world music explorations. Lyrically, “Corner” alternates glowing affirmations for the next generation with sheer terror at the lack of control the adults in the household are experiencing in their own lives, carrying home beautifully the theme running through this whole EP of trying (and failing) to anticipate the future from an anxiety-inducing station in life.
Given that theme, I can’t help but wonder if part of Vest’s game here in changing up his musical approach involves a conscious effort to further unsettle his listeners. The end result of melding his intense, poetic lyrics about the rich and dangerous undercurrents of everyday suburban life with a rather eerie, electronic rhythm section is a sound I can only describe as American gothic.
The issue for me personally comes in my perception that the groundedness and at times hyper-realism of Vest’s narratives is what makes his songs so special. The artificiality of the loops and synths featured here feels like it’s fighting against the very essence of these songs.
That said, Curve extends Vest’s streak of lyrical excellence, a series of intense narratives brimming with nuggets of sometimes-brutal, sometimes-beautiful truth, the fiercely honest soundtrack to a suburban mid-life crisis. Whatever you make of the music, there can be no doubt about the words; they are simply exceptional.