- Brooding Atmopshere
It wasn’t even a year ago when I first heard of Jack O’ the Clock, a compelling avant-folk ensemble hailing from the East Bay Area in Northern California. At that time I was so impressed as to quote Fred Frith’s comments on the band’s composer, calling him “extraordinarily courageous” with “some of the freshest and most surprising music.” Well, even after such a short time between releases, I must say that Frith’s words still hold up, not only in regards to 2013’s All My Friends but also to Jack O’ the Clock’s latest release as well, their 2014 album Night Loops.
While Night Loops essentially features a similar array of instruments as its predecessor (acoustic guitar, glockenspiel, violin, bassoon, and a pretty much a greedy musician’s length Christmas list of other acoustic instruments), at its core the tone of Night Loops is quite different than All My Friends. Where All My Friends was oftentimes an upbeat (but strange) rural folk extravaganza, Night Loops is a weighty head-on dive into the abyss of the human soul. In fact, there are more or less three levels of Night Loops: dark, darker, and darkest. I do not hesitate to say that this an album that oozes despair. Just so that this is not to be mistaken as a criticism, I will clarify that in this case it is a strength. There is absolutely nothing in this album that sounds, false, unauthentic, or to be taken lightly. Night Loops is a meaningful and introspective album whose avant-garde tendencies certainly do not take away from its ability to feel very human.
Right from the start, Night Loops plunges into the aforementioned bleak atmosphere. The album opener, “Ten Fingers” sucks you in with a array of creepy ambient sounds around a percussive motif calling to mind Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. While this piece is dominated by a folky melody on vocals, the instrument arrangements are not what would be expected. Rather than plucky acoustics we get a lot of eerie droning violins. The whole piece is tense and unsettling, and it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the record. Following up after “Ten Fingers” is “Bethlehem Watcher,” an interesting track with some tricks up its sleeves. Essentially we get an reverby piccolo over a bit of old style American folk vocals that eventually break into a gritty blues, but what comes afterwards is what really caught my attention: an epic cathedral style organ with that sort of gothic vampire vibe offsetting a bluesy riff. I can imagine this sort of thing being done before, but never quite this cool or unique.
Unique music is pretty much the name of the game throughout the album. Take “Tiny Sonographic Heart,” for instance, a fascinating short piece where barely audible tremolo mandolins create an interesting sound akin to what one would imagine with the world on the brink of a storm, where the piano injects unsettling chord changes, and where the lead part is played on a BLADE OF GRASS. Yes, that’s right, a blade of grass, and it doesn’t sound like a gimmick. It’s highly musical and fits in perfectly with this quiet yet tense piece. Then there’s “How the Light is Approached,” an interesting song featuring loads of dissonant ringing from bundt pans (almost sounding like bells) among a percussive sea of shakers and behind some wild bassoon soloing and unusual vocals which spin all around the mix in the strangest of ways. “Fixture” ended up being one of my personal favorites, a track where mellow percussion permeates an atmosphere of subtle chord shifts, droney instrumentation, and an overall feeling of the foreboding. The vibraphone on this track particularly goes a long ways in darkening the mood up after a really cool, sort of screechy baritone violin solo, but in the end there’s lots of cool stuff going on here whether it’s the already mentioned vibes and violin, the incredibly eerie solo vocal section over percussion, or the cool marimba part at the end.
There are, of course, a few pieces that ring a bit more ‘normal,’ but even in these situations the band always maintains its identity firmly. “Come Back Tomorrow” on some level is a conventional acoustic folk guitar piece, but the brutal lyrics and heavy emphasis on dissonant fingerpicking create a bleak musical soundscape during much of the piece despite the fact that it does move towards a lighter ending with a bit more emphasis on rhythm. Similarly, the album closer “Rehearsing the Long Walk Home,” reins in the strangeness with its tight focus on the folk guitar and voice. This melancholy acoustic ballad abounds in constant picking and limited chord changes, but what makes the song dark and convincing, however, is the extensive use of ambient electric guitars in the background; swells, slides, crescendos, and soloing all combine to create a dense atmosphere that adds deep melancholy to the piece.
If you were a fan of All My Friends you most certainly need to check out the latest effort by this fantastic Bay Area ensemble. With Night Loops, Damon Waitkus and Jack O’ the Clock continue to carve out an impressive niche within the prog, avant-folk, and Rock in Opposition genres.