Most of the current or former members of Drive-By Truckers who’ve released solo material have stuck pretty close to the Truckers’ format of crunchy southern rock. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have gone spare and barebones, while Shonna Tucker opted for more of an all-inclusive country vibe. Jason Isbell has essentially kept on doing what he was doing as a Trucker, just gradually expanding his style outward. Truckers’ keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, though, has taken a completely different tack. His debut album, Mess of Happiness, was primarily a collection of ‘70s-inspired power-pop songs and his new EP, The Bitter Suite, follows in that tradition.
True to its name, The Bitter Suite features five interconnected songs over a scant 14 minutes. Also true to the title, the lyrics concern a man reeling from an unexpected breakup. The suite opens with the sound of a theremin before kicking into a crunchy power-pop groove as Gonzalez discusses in general terms what happened and laments in the chorus, “Should’ve seen it coming”. The track also features a cheesy but fun distorted synth solo that then repeats itself with a layer of harmony on top. Then the song slides into the next movement with a brighter, uptempo synth riff before decelerating into a relaxed, poppy sound punctuated by lightly strummed acoustic guitar. “Grey Matter” then jumps back and forth between the uptempo and the pop before giving way to the next piece of the suite.
A handful of artists have tried grafting the suite construction onto pop music in the past. Obviously Brian Wilson sort of set the standard here in the 1960s, but Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse, which was heavily indebted to Wilson, closed with an excellent suite in 1999. And longtime power-pop flagbearers Sloan made an album out of four separate suites on 2014’s Commonwealth and very nearly pulled it off. It’s harder than it looks. Even Wilson’s rejiggered and much-lauded SMiLE release in 2004 felt a bit scattered. Gonzalez’s suite isn’t quite as ambitious as his forebears. This is mostly just five songs with similar lyrical themes grafted together with some nice segues. But it works because all five of the songs are good and Gonzalez’s melodies are both fun and catchy.
Third section “Almond Eyes” is a nice ballad with a well-chosen electric piano accompaniment and a surprise, amiable whistling solo that recurs a couple of times. It gains urgency near the end as the bass goes from walking to driving and a fuzzed-out guitar takes over the melody from the whistling. This leads into the suite’s shortest and best section, “&$%@#!” In the hardest-rocking chunk of the suite, Gonzalez describes going online post-breakup. “I’m so powerfully bitter / I just can’t control my hands / My digits keep on adding words my friends can’t understand / And I’m furiously typing and / The message that I send, it says…”, and then the guitars drop out and the speed backs off and Gonzalez says the title: “Ampersand dollar sign percent at pound exclamation point”. It’s a fun little joke, and Gonzalez’s vocal resemblance to “Weird” Al Yankovic makes it hit a bit harder.
The suite closes with a family gathering on “Shenerock Lane”, as our hero ingests a substance that leaves him incapacitated and embarrassed. It doesn’t, however, end with any real catharsis for him, which is an interesting place to end the story. Musically, the song is a keyboard workout for Gonzalez. It finds him using electric piano, piano, accordion, and organ before the suite fades out with another bit of theremin.
While The Bitter Suite is short, it’s also catchy and compelling, which keeps it from feeling slight. Gonzalez’s interest in power-pop sets him pretty far apart on the rock spectrum from his Drive-By Truckers bandmates, which in turn makes it seem like a more interesting project. If there’s a complaint to be made here, it’s that Gonzalez is possibly a little too steeped in the pop sounds of the ’60s and ‘70s and not particularly original. But a similar complaint can be made about a lot of artists that play power-pop in the 21st century, so it’s not like he isn’t in good company.