Nine Kinds Of Happy
Curlock & Jalaiso, 2014
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/09/2014
The thing about songwriters is, the best have mastered not one, but two artistic disciplines.
They are composers, and—again, we’re talking about the best here—they’re also poets. They marry phrases and melodies, tempos and images, in ways that elevate both, turning words and music into a kind of aural painting, a genuinely unique art form that delivers an emotionally rich, multi-dimensional experience to their audience.
And Jean-Paul Vest is one of the best songwriters I've ever encountered.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Vest named the group that is the vehicle for his music Last Charge Of The Light Horse as a sort of reminder to himself to give every song his all, to leave nothing on the field. The group’s 2005 debut Getaway Car was a masterpiece of intense, incisive roots-rock. Sophomore disc Fractures (2008) somehow dug even deeper, an unflinching examination of self, family, love and time. The Curve EP (2011) was both a detour and a gift, a quintet of experimental tunes featuring loops and electronic percussion that was harder to connect with, yet undeniably compelling.
Nine Kinds Of Happy is the next stop on Vest’s journey, a further examination of the kinds of thorny questions he has looked at before—self-sabotage, emotional manipulation, the enveloping, terrifying thrill of romantic love, and the elusively simple roots of happiness. It finds him emerging from the isolation of the home studio environment that shaped Curve and returning to a full-band format, albeit now with the occasional electronic flourish decorating the fringes. Happy is a relatively brief album, clocking in at just eight songs and 33 minutes, that still emerges feeling complete, a sharply-rendered, self-contained song cycle.
Opener “This Is Where” starts the way every great rock song does, with a bold, compelling conversation between drums and guitar as Vest, lead guitarist Bob Stander, bassist Pemberton Roach and drummer Shawn Murray set the foundation for a propulsive tune powered by an ascending, indelible riff. The lyric is pure poetry, a dream diary that takes you from an ecstatic sensory experience (“A Griot band from Senegal plays in the Villefranche town square / Drums fill the arcade, voices fill the air / We need to be, and this is where”), to a secret-sharing conversation with a loved one, to a wrenching moment of insight: “I can’t get out of my own way / Oh, but you lead me to sunlight.”
“Anyone Else” dials the volume and tempo back, a sharp character sketch over a muted, deceptively gentle beat whose steady intensity pushes Vest’s vocals into an almost hip-hop flow. The lyric finds the narrator observing a character who’s turned cold toward a loved one, marveling at how “You’re wearing the light of her presence like a sour taste in your mouth.” It’s a subtle form of emotional abuse that Vest captures perfectly.
Next up, it feels like there might be a bit of a David Gray influence on “Slow As You Can,” which features a steady, hypnotic rhythm section with murmuring little slide notes decorating each line. Pam Aronoff and Jim Watts’ backing vocals contribute nicely to the track’s haunting, ethereal sound, perfect for a song that’s essentially a two-stanza contemplative prayer, a reminder to slow down and experience the moment you’re living in. The fourth minute features gorgeous interplay between Stander and Vest’s guitars, with one delivering a ringing rhythm part while the other plays long, arcing slide notes above.
The mostly acoustic “All Of My Days” is simply the song that every man who loves his spouse wishes he’d written, a celebration of both the unforgettable moment when love first appears, and the way true love, the real thing, matures and persists.
And then, after the opener’s fierce energy has been spent over the course of three slower, softer songs, “Spoken” throws you right back into the fire. Opening with a circular, instantly memorable riff, it’s a muscular, shimmering study in contrasts, expressing in words and music all of the heat and ferocity and electric charge of new love, the primal sensations it unleashes. “So much she loves me / It’s almost frightening / Like the sweetest kiss from / The wildest lightning” he sings near the end, as Stander erupts into a psychedelic, almost Hendrix-like closing solo. Yeah.
“Glaciers” is where the Curve influence is most felt, a haunting number with subtle electronic accents, a gorgeous vocal arrangement again featuring Aronoff and Watts, and remarkable construction. On the one hand, a pair of stunning verses narrate an earthbound reverie in the garden: “Trees root around in a past buried long ago / And the gravel and sand left by the glaciers / Conjugate brambles and exhale a memory of snow.” In between, though, lurks this sinister chorus, sung with cool, deliberate confidence: “I have you right where I want you now.” So is it a song about the power of natural forces to shape the world around us, or about the emotional traps we set for one another over epochs of time? The answer, it seems, is yes.
Batting seventh, the aptly-named “The Less Said, The Better” is an enigmatic four-line poem, accompanied only by deftly picked electric guitar and Watts' harmonies. Obeying its own advice, a fragmentary lyric suggests secrets held close, to be revealed when this track eventually sets up and bleeds right into the album’s closing number.
“So Happy” caps things off beautifully, launching off of Roach’s thrumming, tension-filled bass line and Murray’s shimmery cymbals as Vest describes his observations of three different kinds of happiness. In the first verse, he sees a woman in the car ahead singing along to the radio, but the music is eerie and unsettled; you get the sense that the narrator is trying to understand and perhaps absorb some of the happiness he sees. In the second verse, Vest’s narrator brings the kids to visit grandpa, who emerges from the fog of dementia long enough to smile at them. After a sharp, economical solo from Stander, the third verse finds Vest in bed late in the evening, “Lying wakeful with you in a night of starlit possibilities” as the noises of the quieting neighborhood deliver a kind of symphony of everyday joy. And then the rhythm section falls back, and a series of gorgeous little plucked electric notes slows and finally halts, as if the narrator has fallen asleep. Sublime.
Musically, Vest’s work is all about tension and release, making a full band setting feel like its natural environment, and specifically one that plays with the economy and precision of this terrific lineup. Lyrically, Vest is all about complexity and texture, the promise and pitfalls of love, the push and pull of relationships with family and friends, and the happiness and hauntedness of everyday experiences of every kind.What consistently takes his songs to the next level, though, is the remarkable combination of honesty and artistry he achieves. These songs wrench primal emotions from deep inside, never flinching, and do it in words that are always crafted with tremendous care. In the end, though, the truth these songs expose most emphatically is this: Vest is a breathtakingly talented songwriter.