Portland, Oregon’s Jon Ragel is one talented guy. Here’s what Allmusic.com calls him: “percussionist, DJ, singer, songwriter, producer, saxophonist and guitarist.” That’s a lot of different hats to wear. And a lot of potential to fail and stumble on your face. But on Ragel’s latest outing as Boy Eats Drum Machine, he doesn’t. In fact, these 12 songs are generally revelations, catchy little pseudo-funk ditties with samples sown in, making Ragel come off as a bit of a Prince-like figure, albeit one with a singing voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Matthew Sweet. And there’s a moment, on the title track from his sixth LP since 2005 called The Battle, where there’s swooping strings that sound like they were called in from an Owen Pallett record. Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. But what’s more, and more importantly, the songwriting is top shelf and top drawer, and there’s a great deal of merit in what Ragel has pulled off. It is quite accomplished. Especially considering it is the work of just one guy.
There’s a lot to offer on The Battle, from the kitchen sink clangy, cymbal-heavy drumming of “Destroy Imagination” to the acoustic guitar strummed chorus of “Oh! Little Brother” (where it competes with a groovy saxophone) to the opening klatch of songs: the booty-shaking “Royal Countess” to the twee-like “I, William Your Ex-Lover” to the jazz skronk of “Devil Hands”. While Ragel gets close to overreaching with his sound collages, especially in the final run of songs on the disc, he’s able to generally restrain himself and just let his songcraft shine. The Battle came in a little late to my desk for my nominations for our PopMatters Best of 2012 lists (despite its July release date – hey, it happens!), but, based on the goods delivered within, Ragel certainly tops this writer’s register of acts to keep a close eye on in 2013. This LP is clearly destined to become a minor-key classic in some circles, and cement its creator’s reputation as a summit-peaking act of a great deal of distinction and importance. You should definitely hear it and judge for yourself – but I’m sure you’ll like it if you like great music, regardless of genre. Stuff this good is pretty universal when it comes right down to it and is quite a pleasure to enjoy. This is a real keeper, and will likely become one of my most beloved obscure gems of 2012.