If you have the good fortune of catching the Bitter Tears’ live show, you’ll likely see the band members take the stage in an array of silly costumes: bridal gowns, Daisy Dukes, fake handlebar mustaches, sequins, etc. Initially, this will smack of gimmickry, but that will soon fade once the music starts, and the garish, absurdist quality of the band’s showmanship will become inexorably tied to its songs. One of their most notorious numbers, “Murdered At the Bar” from 2005’s The Grinning Corpse Who Went To Town, is a litany of barroom-chorused excuses why “I didn’t come home last night” that zeniths with “Peter Pan donkey-punched me.” So the Bitter Tears are probably the last band in the world that would want their new album to be described as more mature. Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse is in many respects more developed, older, wiser, ahem—mature, than its predecessor. But Chicago’s country/rock/miscellaneous outfit has grown in musical and songwriting prowess without losing its mischievous spark. The band has never taken itself too seriously, but now its music, even the goofy, winking, awkward moments, happily demand it.
The Bitter Tears’ adaptability to a variety of genres led in the past to songs that fell more or less into those categories, with a decidedly cabaret twist inspired by the band’s biggest hero, Kurt Weill. Here was a Mexican waltz, there a western saloon-burner, a fucked-up show tune, or a gloriously foul drinking song. On Jam Tarts, the distinctions are blurred and more difficult to distill. Opening with a few bars of mariachi trumpet, “Slay the Heart of the Earth” is hook-filled and familiar yet extremely difficult to categorize. A horn-filled bridge breaks the song’s insistent rhythm nicely, and Sierra and Esther Glovers’ vocals play cool counterpoint to Alan Scarpone’s rasp, all of the sundry pieces fitting together like magic. Content-wise, the lyrics subtly allude to Homer’s Odyssey, reference both a “blue-blood princess” and peanut butter, and still manage a thematic cohesiveness that serves the song’s tight melodies.
Without over-thinking it too much, “Slay the Heart”, like the rest of the record, seems primarily concerned with friction, between how you’re supposed to behave and how you want to behave, the things you want in life versus what your expected desires, etc. “Bachelors Say” offers cheekiness like “When people are kids in school / They look good to the world / But they get old and ugly / Especially the girls do,” which is wry and funny on its own, but is part of a whole that criticizes society’s expectation of settling down with the right woman who will “feed you chicken or beef”. Despite its jaunty, upbeat production, the melodies are beautifully melancholy, with Scarpone’s clipped syllables swinging up into crooning falsetto at the end of each line. This kind of balance between quirky humor and underlying heart is achieved throughout the album, and pays off nearly all of the time, keeping the more “serious” songs lively and self-aware, and the weirder tunes grounded.
The second half of Jam Tarts houses most of the album’s more experimental songs. “The Companion” vacillates between a spoken/barked narrative (think Black Francis talking to Preachy Preach about kissy-kiss) over an ominous groove, and intense yet melodic screams. The closer, “Worthless Sleaze”, is a stew of brass, handclaps, and falsetto crooning that defies category but is nonetheless catchy and even danceable. Listen closely and it’s a clear-eyed attack on cynics and moralizers who believe “that everyone is a slut on their knees” and who “need someone to beat” to feel powerful. Then again, it the lyrics could have been culled by a prudish sort who heard “Murdered At the Bar”, so who knows? The unique perspective of Scarpone and company is neither simple nor easily pegged, but rather beautifully encased in the melancholy wash of “Hamptons” and the haunting, Spoon-ish piano chords of “Inbred Kings”, making Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse frighteningly difficult to pull from the stereo.