- Masterful Arranging
Every once and a while something truly interesting comes by my desk; Jack O’ the Clock’s latest record, All My Friends is just that type of record. Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, this five-piece group led by Damon Waitkus presents a daring variety of experimental folk that is immediately accessible, yet so masterfully nuanced in its arrangements to the point of striking the perfect balance between the pop fan and the snootiest of art music connoisseurs. It’s no wonder that Jack O’ the Clock has received such high praise from the legendary Fred Frith, calling Damon Waitkus “an extraordinarily courageous composer [with] some of the freshest and most surprising music.” This is high praise indeed from such a monumental figure, one who no doubt has had his fair share of influence in the Bay Area music scene through his involvement at Mills College.
To give an idea of sonic pallet, Jack O’ the Clock sports hammer dulcimer, glockenspiel, banjo, violins basoon, waterphone, clarinet, harp, vibraphone, flute, piano, accordion, guzheng, and a million other things I’m not even going to begin to list. So the question becomes, what instruments take priority? And at what point do we say, “ok, this is Jack O’ the Clock’s format for how they use these instruments?” Well, the answer certainly isn’t as simple as the question. To say that these guys make a habit out of a certain ‘place’ in their band for particular instruments would hardly do them justice. The arrangements have a wild sense of poetry, giving a sense that the precise question at every moment was “how are we going to make sure that this time around we don’t just let all the musicians fall into their standard role?” To make things even funner, rather than giving us lyrics with the album booklet we get a list of instruments per song, which becomes an absolutely wonderful game as you listen to fascinating compositions where each tone and texture is handled with the utmost care.
There are so many pieces to talk about on this album; however, I’ll choose to mention just a few that really leapt out at me. My initial surprise with the album was the subtle brutality of the the opener. Any record that opens up with the quiet pronunciation “All My Friends Are Dead” while backed by avantgarde beauty (with a slight sense of terror, I might add) most definitely leaves an impression. The funny thing is that it’s not really about dreary moods. The way that the piece transitions from strange beginnings to gorgeous moving parts (backed by an unsettling maniacal laughter) to pure bassoon fun, uplifting interplay between instruments, and an eventual shift to banjo driven folk all exhibit just how far this talented group of musicians can take an idea.
“The Pilot,” for me, was one of the strangest tracks on All My Friends. The piece is rather minimalist with a fascinating sense of repetition and mood. Mesmerizing vocal harmonies floating over found percussion, the gentle rattle of sticks on found percussion, and a woodsy vibe produce a trance inducing effect resulting in a sort of modern spiritual. Plus, the latter half of the song features some Jon Anderson like vocals backed by a suddenly lush arrangement of traditional instruments that would make any prog fan grin from ear to ear. “The Pilot” is but one of several songs on the album that demonstrate Jack O’ the Clock’s dominance of the short piece. Another fine example would be “What to Do in Our Neighborhood 2,” which in a minute and a half delivers fine use of syncopation, powerful doubling of instruments, stop and go movements, and wonderful dialog between voice and band all in one short but meticulously composed piece.
Not to say that the band doesn’t excel at long-form music. On the contrary, as “Old Friends in a Hole” makes absolutely clear. From dark, even dangerous, ambient musing,s a sort of Jethro Tull like vocal line creeps along as the arrangement gets wider and wider with an increase in texture and harmony. Light percussion becomes increasingly apparent and an eventual horn solo carries us into a majestic swell of postrock-like atmosphere and then right back to ambient with the swelling of brass and tinkling percussion galore. This is definitely one for a sit down and detailed living room session where you can absorb every nuance of harmony these musical sorcerers can conjure up.
For proggers like myself, Jack O’ the Clock presents a fine lesson on what it means to write songs that are at once approachable and human while simultaneously being incredibly profound in terms of timbre, depth of emotion, and harmonic complexity. A brilliant and courageous work of American folk served over a strange backdrop, calling to mind the likes of Joanna Newsom, Phillip Glass, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, “All My Friends” certainly is a brilliant and courageous work of music with the capacity to get better with each listen and ultimately leave you thinking, “wow, that was really cool.”