Jessica's Brother - Jessica's Brother

by Mark Moody Rating:9 Release Date:2018-07-20
Jessica's Brother debut album
Jessica's Brother debut album

It’s not so long ago from the heyday of the Alt Country movement and all its expansionist offshoots - cowpunk, rockabilly, roots rock, and more.  These days the catch all genre seems to have settled on Americana and even another sub-genre called red dirt which has a deeper country twist.  From the mid-90s to mid-00s No Depression magazine reigned supreme over the movement and I was a card carrying member.  I’ve also got the t-shirt (only one small hole thank you very much) to prove it.  The magazine had articles and ads, but I always flipped immediately to the reviews of which there were dozens per issue, including reissues of ancient folk music from Appalachia, the British Isles and who knows where else.  Going down this rathole each month led me to Harry Smith’s Folkways stuff, Alan Lomax’s field recordings, and ultimately to a year listening to nothing but Yazoo Records 1920’s country blues CDs.  If I didn’t have everything they put out, it was close.  Needless to say, I have always been a ravenous consumer of music with a need to not miss a thing.  So if any music veered close to any of the above categories over a ten or fifteen year span I have probably heard it.  

Aside from the obvious giants like Uncle Tupelo (from which the magazine derived its name after the band’s first album, but also from the same named Carter Family song), The Jayhawks, and all myriad of singer-songwriters, there was one band that reigned supreme for me.  The David Berman led Silver Jews could do no wrong and each release was anxiously awaited for its mix of ironic snippets, stories as crazy as the just-off time signatures, and always catchy but mainly loping countrified melodies.  Berman suddenly pulled the plug on the band in 2009 never to be heard from again, but not before the one show I ever had a ticket to was cancelled due to a hurricane.  The irony never ceases with that band.

So when a new trio from England, no less, claims the Silver Jews as their primary reference and their album’s cover art is reminiscent of those by Freakwater and Dirty Three - well, alarm bells go off and you expect to be disappointed.  Add to that the band’s name is Jessica’s Brother, which seems it must be some amalgamated Allman Brothers reference - but no, it’s named for Jessica’s brother who also happens to be the lead singer and songwriter.  But of course albums you desperately anticipate usually disappoint, while those you expect to underwhelm can blow you away.  You can put Jessica’s Brother’s self-titled debut squarely in the latter camp.  The band is led by singer/songwriter Tom Charleston, with Jonny Helm (aka Jessica’s boyfriend) on drums and Charlie Higgs on bass.  Here they are accompanied by Dan Mayfield on violin and Paul Rains on guitar and slide.

When the scuzzed out, ropy opening chords of ‘Getting Obscene’ come blasting from the speakers and Charleston intones “gettting obscene when you were young” it’s an “Oh shit!” moment.  As in, is this really happening?  Maybe not as scorching as the opening chords of Eleventh Dream Day’s debut album track ‘Watching the Candles Burn’, but up there, and definitely a gauntlet laid down of we know what the Hell we’re doing - influences on our sleeves be damned.  As the song builds to a crescendo, Charleston’s command of “give ‘em the chorus, make ‘em adore us” holds the knowing key like the corollary to Cobain’s “here we are now, entertain us”.  The fire of that song is soothed by the following ‘All the Better’ which is the first of several Silver Jews’ flavored tunes, but one upped by Mayfield’s non-stop violin line recalling Dirty Three’s Ocean Songs.  A brilliant combination of touchpoints seamlessly melded together, but also sounding wholly original.

The album finds its strength in its quieter moments that burble with energy in the right spots.  The clear eyed ‘Come Around’ with its effortless chord changes and more of Charleston’s lyricism (“anxious carousing, naked rough-housing”) is an understated highlight.  Followed by another Silver Jews sound alike in ‘Hare’, which throws in background vocals (could it be Jessica herself?) as well and closes on lines from the bluegrass chestnut ‘I’ll Fly Away’.  Those stand in stark contrast to a handful of brooding tracks where Jessica’s Brother takes its only missteps.  ‘One of the Guys’ rails on a while too long and the deservedly obscure ‘Lulu Walls’ goes from the mildly creepy original to the murderous with no added interest and is unfortunately the longest track here.  Of the three darker tracks, only ‘Overnight Horror’ succeeds due to the complexity of the composition which howls - "a sea of tumult and duress" to borrow from another track.

Everywhere else though the album glows brightly, from the lazy, jazzy Malkmus influenced ‘Humdinger’ to the epic closer ‘Cold, White & Blue Day’ that begins to unwind as a Drive By Truckers classic last track ballad, but elevates to a stately “roll of the drums” Fairport Convention tangle of instrumentation.  With that, the album closes as brilliantly as it started, going from the blistering opening chords to a softer fade.  These guys sound like they have been playing together for years, if not decades.  Though all are accomplished musicians, Helm’s drumming stands out for being perfectly paced and nuanced throughout and any place Mayfield appears further depth is added, like a splash of bitters to the mix.  All in all a near perfect debut album that borrows from all the right bands, while making the sound their own given their individual skills coalescing in all the right spots.  Long may they run. 

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