Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall

In the year 2009, Jay Reatard turning out an album of 12 well-produced guitar pop songs is a more audacious move than most anyone is going to realize. This isn't to say that the era of the solid pop/rock Long Player is long dead, that three decades ago it was just plain easier for artists to make that perfect four note hook materialize out of nowhere using the simplest yet most unfathomably infectious combination of musical elements because all the good ideas hadn't been used up yet. Remember just how fucking hard an instant classic song like "Nightmares" managed to dispel any such notions during that special period of your life spent between the quiet late 2006 release of Blood Visions and the realization that half the reason you didn't end up with every one of those Matador 7"s was due to every subsequent new song's ability to make you care less and less.

It's just that after hearing where the man was going with the more blatantly "pop" leanings of his 2008 output... well, there's the strange thing about the arc of Mr. Reatard's solo career thus far. Handy descriptors such as "more accessible" and "less noisy" and "constantly refined pop craftsmanship" aren't so handy when dealing with a songsmith whose startlingly brilliant solo debut LP was such a headspinning blast through some of the most refreshingly tuneful punk/pop/whatever-the-fuck songs anyone has managed to come up with this decade. Throw in "Let It All Go," "Hammer I Miss You," and the glorious "I Know A Place" and you'll be forgiven for spending that year and a half naively thinking, "How the hell could whatever this superhuman genius machine comes up with next not be such a triumph of devastating catchiness that it actually manages to claw its way up the charts and into the hearts of millions?"

In light of the soul-crushing reality illuminated by the Matador singles, Watch Me Fall should have seemed inevitable. What other choice did Jay have, really? Was he going to somehow not put out an LP of two and a half minute long songs that manage to retain his previous work's garagey punch while peeling back some of the fuzz to make way for a greater emphasis on his much talked about Flying Nun fascination?

Therein lies the somewhat disappointing news. Jay cleaned up his sound, included more songs that actually approach the four minute mark and less that barely scratch 120 seconds, sang lines that may have previously been filtered through throat mangling shouts... yet despite such streamlining, Watch Me Fall isn't the sort of concise power pop record demanded of a less vicious Reatard. His pop smarts were as firmly in place as they could possibly have been circa "My Shadow" and "Oh It's Such A Shame," so of course those previous achievements are going to be difficult to transcend, let alone come close to matching. Even with many easy to detect differences, the new material is far less of a 180° turn from Blood Visions than it needs to be for Jay to have a second start to finish classic on his hands, a defined second chapter in his solo career.

Such a criticism wouldn't even be valid unless the album didn't feel like an artistically purgatorial mess. While the production sports more listenability than one would expect from anything described as "one man garage punk circa 2009" and every song contains at least one borderline anthemic hook, it's not exactly The Cars in terms of the kind of absurdly consistent melody surpluses that an album like this should aspire towards. While I am of the opinion that Mr. Reatard's earlier work stood out so much due to its ability to strike the perfect balance between screaming abrasiveness and pop songcraft of the sugariest order, I have no problem with him attempting to smooth out the more razor sharp edges. There are a number of moments on Watch Me Fall where Reatard seems well-equipped for a bright power pop future. "My Reality" updates the "Hammer I Miss You" verses so that they can happily coexist with a chorus that is all chiming guitars and stomping bass drum rhythm, you'd swear you were listening to an actually not terribly boring R.E.M. song (well, not really, but what else are you going to compare a song with "chiming guitars" to.) "Rotten Mind" finds Jay giving a vocal performance in what sounds like the ordinary range of his speaking voice, bringing out a melodicism within the track worthy of the first couple Wire albums. While the pacing and sequencing of the tracks isn't quite as perfect as on Jay's first album, the anxious multipart rush of "Hang Them All" into the surprisingly sweet sounding (yet with enough triumphant bombast in the wordless chorus to make it a choice closing number) "There Is No Sun" makes for a skillfully presented conclusion, while opener "It Ain't Gonna Save Me" storms right out of the gate, announcing that the new Jay Reatard Long Player has been completed and you're hearing it, damnit.

While those songs all rock efficiently, the album's most troublesome spots come when Jay doesn't reign in his more abrasive tendencies. In the context of this album, the verses of "Faking It" don't quite fit, seeming like an attempt to force the stop-start racket of "I See You Standing There" and "Puppet Man" into a place where they have no business being. Likewise, the chorus of "Men of Steel" contains a bit too much Blank Dogs-esque ugliness for my tastes, not to mention an instrumental breakdown that just has me longing for the brilliant you'd-swear-somebody-had-just-thrown-on-a-Slowdive-record outro of "Oh It's Such a Shame." And I'm not sure what the hell is going on in the verses of "Nothing Now," but it's simply not enjoyable to listen to (even if it does sound like the album cover, for better or for worse (well, the latter, sadly.)) Occasionally, I can't help but feel that Jay's conscious decision to follow his Tall Dwarfs/Clean muse by making the poppier moments as blatantly melodic as possible results in certain songs being more twee than I can personally handle, particularly the midtempo keyboard driven "I'm Watching You." Yet there is a sense that Jay is testing the waters in terms of how far he can really take his bubblegum ambitions... how much fuzz he can strip away and what the best way to go about doing so is. We can only hope that he lives to craft another album or two. The mix of good and less good ideas here only makes me eager to hear what Watch Me Fall is serving as a transition towards.

Rating: I've said a lot of negative things here, but really, Jay Reatard is still the reigning king of this sort of bratty garage pop. He might have a goofy voice and maybe the songs would get on the radio if they were just a bit slower, but this stuff is still some of the only modern pop/rock music worth listening to. It isn't just a bunch of lo-fi bullshit that all runs together. There's a great deal of care and skill put into these songs and while Watch Me Fall isn't the sort of perfect album that came into my life at just the right time like Blood Visions was, Jay Reatard's confidence and commitment to songcraft remains unparalleled during the second half of the '00s (except by The-Dream (that was a joke, but it's probably true.)) Seriously, what are you going to do, listen to the fucking Smith Westerns? I've played this album more in the past two days than anything else I've heard during the first seven and a half months of 2009. It's good.

Download Link: "Rotten Mind"... awfully good song.

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