It took no less than a decade for the Baptist Generals to release their second full-length album, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart. Given frontman and songwriter Chris Flemmons’ reputation as a control freak, that might suggest 10 years of obsessive fussing, tinkering, and tweaking. Some fans wondered if the album would become the indie version of Chinese Democracy. (Flemmons, by the way, has spoken on record about those 10 years, saying that in fact he spent a good chunk of that time founding a music festival and battling real-estate developers in his hometown of Denton, Texas—that is, working on things other than the album.)
The good news is that the album is worth the wait. Despite some moments in the second half where the music sounds a bit overcooked, Jackleg is fresh and vibrant, a collection of restless, eccentric folk-rock that never settles on one single musical approach and is all the better for it.
The album opens with “Machine En Prolepsis”, a zingy instrumental built around pounding acoustic guitar strums and a gently squealing synth line. The follow up, “Dog That Bit You”, is more traditional but no less infectious. The classic-rock-inspired track is highlighted by some sizzling lead guitar and Flemmons’ drawly whine. In “Clitorpus Christi” (my nominee for worst rock song title ever), spare and gentle instrumentation gives way to a lovely break of psychedelic guitar and fluttering marimba.
The album’s showpiece occurs roughly at the midpoint—the one-two combo of “Turnunders and Overpasses” and “Oblivion”. The former is a beautifully constructed folk song that adds orchestral accents to the simple and insistent strumming of an acoustic guitar string. The latter builds from a nondescript opening to a rousing finale of exploding keyboards, drums, and guitars. In addition to being a gorgeous pair of pop songs, the tracks—one minimal, the other lush—show how adept the Baptist Generals are at hopping from one musical style to another on this album.
Linking the disparate sounds is Flemmons’ singing, which I think deserves more credit than it generally gets, and his lyrics. Flemmons’ high-pitched, unpretentious voice reminds me of early Joe Walsh, and his heartfelt delivery helps sell even some of his goofier lines. (“My god, that trollop was loud,” he sings in “Clitorpus Christi”. Really? “Trollop”?) Images of love and the quest for it pop up again and again in the songs, suggesting that maybe this album is about human connection. At one point Flemmons sings “Will you hold my hand and dream with me?”, a question that could have been—maybe should have been—the album’s title.
Jackleg Devotional to the Heart drags a bit near the end, especially during the pointless “Oblivion Overture” that closes it out. And there are moments when the experimentation falls flat, like the confusing round of noise at the start of the otherwise affecting track “Floating”. But this is a strong effort that displays almost none of the suffocating perfectionism that some feared. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years for a follow-up.