Friday, January 8, 2010

Justyn with a Y - Swans(ong)

Ah the life of the struggling artist, forced to seek gainful employment outside his chosen field of play. Do we writers know the bitter sting of rejection any better than musicians? We are always asked by our friends and relatives--"are you still writing?" "Are you still playing music?" It seems inevitable. No one wants to ignore a person's dreams, even when they realize those dreams are improbable. We all want to believe that you can do what you love and make something out of yourself at the same time.

Does anyone know how hard it is to work on something in private, perfect it as you see fit, give it a proper professional sheen, and send it to the appropriate people who will then judge it as they see fit, while hoping they will offer you some kind of publishing deal, some kind of record deal, which will finally allow you to live your life the way you have always wanted to, going into your predetermined space and playing around with your instruments until you come up with something cogent, some statement, some piece of art which is meant to---? Excite, inspire, assuage, or comfort? Does anyone know how hard it is to then go around in person and present this material to the masses--which amount to barflys and cocktail waitresses--and try to keep a positive attitude? Does anyone know how hard it is to make money back on your investment when your chosen item of trade is presented by a complete unknown, and has questionable merits?

That is not to say that Justyn with a Y's debut album Swans(ong) has questionable merits musically, but for me, I generally feel that folk music has questionable merits. I don't understand it. I've never gotten into Bob Dylan. Justyn gave me a Townes van Zandt record and I liked that okay. There was only one time I listened to it and it felt appropriate--when I was driving my car into the city recently, to go to a jazz concert that I knew I was going to be late to, not really wanting to go at all, just feeling depressed in pretty much every way--and the album worked wonders. And I understand why Our Mother the Mountain is a great album.

Justyn has played in three bands since I have known him: Hog Hug, Phosphates, and Para Para Parasol. Justyn with a Y is the title of his solo project, and his first album Swans(ong) easily eclipses the entirety of his recorded output with any of those three previous bands--but I say that with a caveat--the caveat being that I liked the musical stylings of those previous bands better.

Okay, so Hog Hug never really set the world on fire, but I saw them play a couple times and I liked the song "Bar" and I have a bootleg of one of their concerts on my iPod and they play an interesting cover of the Beat Happening song "Tiger Trap." The Phosphates were my band, so to speak, and when one member left, Justyn filled in, and thus began the final tumultuous months of that band, which contained some of their best music and most troublesome feuds. I may be biased but I feel that the Phosphates were a supergroup of sorts and it is sad that they did not make it the way I envisioned. Para Para Parasol was a step in the right direction for Justyn, and their album is totally decent. I liked it just fine. I liked the sound, but they weren't exactly going to set the world on fire either.

Swans(ong) is not going to set the world on fire either. But this is Justyn's best work yet. It was recorded in a forest in Maryland in August 2009. It starts off uncertainly with "Slowing Me Down" which is sprightly enough but perhaps has some questionable lyrics. When the line "You know that my time is a precious thing to me/I can't spend it all making love to a memory" keeps coming up I can't stop thinking about masturbation, sorry. "Jason Moran" is the second song and takes things in a slightly weirder direction. I do not know who Jason Moran is but I feel compelled to google him or wikipedia him. Justyn reveals himself to be a bit more of a craftsman with this song, since it is somewhat more complex and probably shouldn't work, but does to a certain extent.

There are 9 songs on this album and of those, about four work really well. A couple of them are probably disposable, and another couple of them are totally decent. I think it is worth noting that Justyn did everything on his own with guitar on this album, no drums, nothing else but the ambient sounds of nature in the background. And to me, that ambience is the strongest part about the whole album. I felt that it could have been played up and used to a far more powerful effect. As it is, you hear a little bit, for about a second, at the very beginning, a little bit in between songs, and then at the very end for a couple seconds. The ambient nature sounds complement the nature of the material--and it could have been really cool, like a Microphones record, but instead it ends up sounding like a demo tape with slightly more to it.

"Shoelace Necklace" is the first song to be totally pleasant, but sounds like it could fit easily on one of those early Sebadoh cassette recordings. It is nice, but it is not especially a major statement. "Coastal Highway" comes next, and is the first truly great song on the album. Justyn is definitely branching out a bit from his comfort zone on this one, and it pays off. For some reason it reminds me of Neil Young--probably just the way the singing sounds. The song delves into a guitar hook that sounds like something off of Psychic Hearts. But in a folk way. This is my primary criticism--the material would sound much better with a full band, a punk/noise band. But "Coastal Highway" would not be magnified by a full group. It is at full strength the way it is.

"Direction is Round" is another song that works on the album, though not to the degree of "Coastal Highway"--more like to the degree of "Shoelace Necklace." My other basic complaint about this album is the production--yes, the nature setting is nice, but underused. But this is what separates amateurs from professionals. You can always tell the difference between your friend's band and say, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or even Wavves, bands that supposedly break out while doing everything D.I.Y. Guided by Voices are probably the only band that really did sound "lo-fi" and unpolished when first noticed. Production is unimportant, it seems, when people like Beck or Lou Barlow can record their own album on a four-track and be totally great. But no one would really listen to those recordings if they hadn't already heard the more "hi-fi" stuff--You're Living All Over Me or Odelay. If I am supposedly drawing comparisons to Justyn then it is inutile as the French might say.

"L#A#N#D" is probably the most notable song on the album, and is either the most annoying or most enjoyable thing on the album. I think it is nice, and simple, and well-constructed. I don't really understand the lyrics but it seems like they might be about Christianity. "Even if Your Road Leads Down" is a bit different, and definitely works--certainly darker than anything on the album up to this point. And perhaps makes me think about art, and failure. When I saw the artwork for the album, I told Justyn it was very "confrontational." And he asked in what sense, and I said, "In the sense that, with the title 'Swan Song,' you're leading people to believe that it's the last thing you'll do musically. But the spray paint across the 'ong' is like saying, 'No, I'm not ready to quit yet.'"

"Lorraine" makes me think of a more clever and less listenable song by Ozma about a character from the Back to the Future movies, and as it is, it is totally decent, but doesn't leave much of an impression. That is not the case for the final track, "When the Tension's Gone," which sounds a bit like Pavement to me, and is arguably the best single song just Justyn has ever recorded. That it is quiet and mournful is a shame for the modern rock radio stations of today that could play Justyn's much buzzed-about new single...It is the perfect way to cap off the album as it is. Yes, it reminds me of "Here."

There's not much more I could say that I haven't already intimated. Yes, this is Justyn's best work yet, and he has good reason to be proud of it, but it's not really the type of music I usually like (folk) and I don't think many people are going to be able to get into it. I think people need a reason to like their bands--i.e. they are not usually very good reasons. Like, people like Lady Gaga because she is catchy and cool, or people like Animal Collective because they are "music for intellectuals," or something, and people like Deerhunter or Girls because they are provocative, and people like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart because they are the closest equivalent of My Bloody Valentine, or people like Jack Johnson because he reminds them of just kicking back with friends, smoking a j, having a beer, and talking about what is good in life, or people like New Order because they are an awesome band for the dance element, or people like Weezer because they have a crush on Rivers Cuomo. The reason people would like Justyn with a Y is because it would be music to put on a mixtape for the person you have a crush on. But it is too difficult to be that kind of music. It is original, and it could only be made by Justyn, and I do not think it is going to open the door to an especially lucrative career in music, but it is his most accomplished work to date, and something that, if he could build upon it, might find a way to attract a larger body of listeners.


justyn said...

Hahaha aw man and here I thought I destroyed all traces of Hog Hug long ago. This review is great! I loved hearing your points and the ¨I do not think it is going to open the door to an especially lucrative career in music¨ comment tells me you understood the album perfectly. Thanks for doing the review!

JK said...

Oh my pleasure! I thought you might be offended by some of it, but I did my best to be honest. I know nothing about music in comparison with you, or regular music critics, but I tried to give an evaluation on the "commercial" aspect of the record.