Review Summary: After a band member's admissions of religious hypocrisy, Christian pop/rock darlings Jars of Clay attempt to reinvent themselves. (Yes, again.) Doodling through a pantheon of shy stylistic variations, they remain un-revolutionized but decent.
Those born into the 90's alternative radio generation may feel an obligation to certain bands from that era, even though the industry is up to its ears in other, more relevant music. Among the artists to whom I feel this obligation, Everclear
, the Barenaked Ladies
, Ben Folds
, and Jars Of Clay
figure prominently in the adult alternative/college rock category.
Folds has retained some of his relevance, but his offerings last year consisted of a schmaltzy cartoon soundtrack and an "online singles collection," (which sounds suspiciously like a dating service). Turns out there's only so much room in the world for a one-man piano circus. Art Alexakis's attempted comeback is hardly a shadow of Everclear's "Santa Monica" form (the sputnikmusic reviewer mentions "sobbing" after listening to it). The Barenaked Ladies, on the other hand, have more than proven themselves this year and last, with their flurry of lilting banjos, sincere eyebrows, and the occasional tongues in cheeks. They totally missed the "all-90's radio" memo about sucking. So when I saw these ol' perpetrators of the overplayed "Flood" pushing anew for artistic and ideological relevance, (and while that could be said of any stage of their career, with admittedly varied results) I thought I'd give Good Monsters
the track-by-track treatment.
Opening with "Work," the Jars are out to impress with their new sound. On might immediately ask "are they copying, like, Queens of the Stone Age
, My Chemical Romance
, or the The Bravery
? Maybe even mimicking Radiohead
?" So that's the big change. It's hard to create a new artistic direction. But it's nearly impossible to do so by mimicking contemporaries significantly more popular than oneself. And it's a risky business; although it works for Dan Haseltine to become a little throatier and to drop an octave (as a matter of fact its heartwarming to witness him discovering his own testosterone after all these years), the first song sticks about as well as a used post-it note. The Jars contain their typical fare, as Haseltine booms, "I have no fear of drowning / it's the breathing / that's taking all this work." "Dead Man (Carry Me)" follows, with some excitement in the first verse as the boys emulate Franz Ferdinand
guitars, but they shrink back into a too-soft, reclusive chorus typical of their If I Left The Zoo
era. It's a faux-anthem, the kind of oration that has characterized Jars' career since Much Afraid
, so it hardly feels like anything new. The desperate sincerity only works if you can overlook the desperate need to sound new.
"All My Tears" is instrumentally better, with atmospheric post-punk stylings, 70's harmonic awareness, and a fast reverb that almost succeeds in painting a desolate western soundscape. But the new formula is simply to patch new sounds into the tired old formula, without taking any interesting new directions. "Even Angels Cry," again flirts with atmospheric post-rock, and has some tasteful gospel-Americana touches, but the melody turns blasé as lyric quickly goes the way of the unimaginative Christian Contemporary Music industry at large. It sounds like the name of a Precious Moments figurine. The hokey theme of the song hurts the sincerity of its message. "There Is A River" also has potential and new production decisions, but dies in a tired chorus. At this point in the album it's good to observe that the Jars guys need to find a way to get out of their signature songwriting rut. Their catalog could be best summarized as a collection of interesting verses usually culminating in belabored Hallmark-card refrains. The quality level of their debut album and a few other great songs are really what keep people waiting to see what will come next.
By that token, "Good Monsters" is a wise title-track. The lyrics are interesting, and the refrain is uncharacteristically good. Shoegazer here is complicated by too many sunshiny background effects, but the ELO-style guitar tapping and a swooning chorus recommend it. (Midlake
fans, if they were ever to listen to this album, would find similarities to "Head Home," which is arguably one of the best tracks on the superb Trials of Van Occupanther
.) On the title track's heels,"Oh My God" is also better than average. A slowly building list of contradictions, frustrations and shames of human existence mixes with a few warm fuzzies as if to say, "it's not all bad, but it's not all good either." Crescendoing in "oh my God," kinda like Sufjan Stevens
might sing it to John Wayne Gacy, the potentially blasphemous expression becomes a poignant, helpless outcry. Another relatively strong outing comes on "Surprise," as Haseltine plaintively sings, "These are just placebos to make us feel alright / illusions in our pockets make our feathers float us high," which I find one of the better explanations of the faith/doubt dichotomy. "And hope though short in sight," he continues, "might be the only thing that wakes you by surprise."
It has become a dearly tiresome complaint of Christians regarding their own special genre, that lyrics should not blur the line between the musician's God and the musician's hot date. A perfect example, "Take Me Higher" addresses a nebulous "you," makes it the object of much touching affection and esteem, and never really clarifies its object. Whether "you" is God or the singer's latest flame is anyone's guess. CCM connoisseurs may bemoan this gray area, because to them it represents "crossing over." For the uninitiate, "cross-over" isn't a compliment. It's CCM's equivalent of "selling out." But didn't God supposedly create romantic love as a model to help humans understand His love for the church? An open mind might find a moving parallel worked out in this song. But it doesn't get far without beginning to sound derivative of hackneyed adult popular music themes. if there was a Society for the Promotion of Unoriginal and Ambiguously Religious music, the phrase "Take Me Higher" would be their motto, thanks to Creed
. For a band in Jars of Clay's position, it might have been a no-brainer to avoid that kind of songwriting.
The subsequent song, "Smoke & Mirrors," demonstrates this axiom: southern rock was good news for Christian music ten years ago, which makes it old news. Mac Powell’s southern drawl and the Dixie influences of Audio Adrenaline
and Third Day
went a long way in helping Jars of Clay and a short list of other bands lift Christian rock above a joke and a contradiction. But the this attempt at southwestern dust, rust and gospel is just a rehash of Third Day's formula. The addition of Leigh Nash
's treble is an old hat that might have worked. She's apparently developing an Emmylou Harris
complex these days. But her presence all but kills the Dinosaur Jr
vibe developing in "Smoke & Mirrors," which would have been a welcome development.
In "Light Gives Heat," The boys show some thought. Christian music often seems to be pure promotion and sentiment at the expense of thoughtful expression, and songs about racial tensions usually sound like dc Talk
's conciliatory "Colored People," a feel-good anthem about how we're all the same in God's eyes. While that kind of "Jesus Loves Me" rehash would have been par for the course, this instead explores arrogant white men's failure to infiltrate and solve continental African problems. It's a phenomenal intellectual and artistic step for Christian Contemporary Music in general, and we can hope to understand correctly that that is in fact what this song is about. "I want to see you shine / see your light not mine," Haseltine plies God, "because light gives heat." A realization that some missionaries may be doing more damage than good, that missions work is dependent on something supernatural, is almost unheard of in the K-LOVE radio crowd. This could be the best song Jars of Clay has ever written, even if the production is somewhere between watered-down Graceland and westernized world music, Lion King
-style. As conceptually challenging as it is, it should have been the closing track, because "Water Under The Bridge" does not live up to the conceptual potential of its title.
In sum, Good Monsters
shouldn't be a contender for any awards, except a Dove and maybe a merit badge for "being a little better than you usually are." The flurry of stylistic sampling is a little confusing, and the intellectual and sonic coherency of Monsters
suffers in a narrow creative scope. Blame the Jars' tendency to hold back. Too many times, it causes them to fade to gray instead of becoming dark or dazzling. 65%