The name alone is challenging enough. Turn to the person next to you right now and tell them “I am reading a review of some re-issues from the band Jackie O Motherfucker”. See what I mean? In my opinion it’s the “O” that makes it an awkward turn of phrase even more so than the profanity. It’s an impassible vowel directly in the center that forces you to make a silly face when speaking it. If you hurry through and try to say the name fast it ends up sounding like an unfortunate Irishman, and if spoken more cautiously it comes off like the drunken answer to an MTV Spring Break game show question.
Jackie-O’s music is similarly difficult to grasp. At any given moment it can fit into dozens of descriptions and comparisons. It wouldn’t be wrong to classify them alongside the primitive improvisations of groups like No Neck Blues Band, yet they could also easily fit in on the label roster of Constellation Records or stand in for Krautrock collectivists like Amon Duul. With sounds evoking free jazz, folk music, field recordings, psychedelia, and noise, Jackie-O are sonic conjurers that tap deeply into a timeless weirdness that spans several decades of avant-garde noodling.
Originally released in 2000 and 2001, respectively, by the label Road Cone, Fig. 5 and Liberation were the first recordings of the band to be made widely available. It’s probably more appropriate to say “widely available at the time” however, since the LPs went quickly out of print, forcing those who desired to hear the records to seek them out for unsettling prices on Ebay. Now the UK-based ATP Recordings has seen fit to re-issue them once more, that they might be placed easily within the reach of a future generation of aspiring noisemakers.
Fig. 5 begins with several minutes of low noise. Guitar scrapes and sounds reminiscent of radio static slowly transition into a single molasses guitar note plucked like a ship sounding off its horn in the fog. Only after 10 minutes does it transition into something that sounds even remotely akin to a rock band.
The record plays like a Smithsonian Folkways recording of the Boredoms. All manner of unidentifiable junk shop instrumentation is thrown in to complement the lazily rambling guitars, with the moans of band members Tom Greenwood, Brooke Crouser and John Flaming drifting in and out of the mix. About half way through the LP Jackie-O come the closest they get to an actual “song” on the haunting call and response “Go Down Old Hannah”. It plays like wax cylinder field recording until the final verse transitions into a slow storm of saxophone squawking that creeps eloquently into a crooked take on “Amazing Grace”.
Although lacking in the gothic Americana atmospheres that Fig. 5 conjures so distinctively, Liberation is without a doubt a more accomplished recording. Here Jackie-O trades up the some of the primitive folk jams for something that bears more similarity to free jazz with an expanded ensemble that now includes instruments like the vibraphone found on album opener “Peace on Earth”. Still, the band resists any pigeonholing by shifting easily between moods and even dropping into a relatively straight cover of Dino Valenti’s “Something on Your Mind”.
As cool as it sounds none of this music is particularly engaging in and of itself. Jackie-O willfully discards traditional elements such as melody, structure or even climax, leaving a meandering and seemingly random stream of ideas and textures. It is the aural equivalent of wallpaper, casting a definite mood over the environment in which it is played but commanding little attention. While aspects of the music will no doubt infuriate the great majority of listeners, it is this characteristic that makes it so interesting and resonant. The band manages to be ambient without being bloodless and mechanical. They are abstract and evocative without being cliché.
Try as I might, I still cannot find a decent manner in which to say the words “Jackie-O Motherfucker”. After repeated efforts the moniker is still elusive and at best I sound only moderately ridiculous. In the end however, I have to admit that this confounding name is appropriate to the band. Such is the nature of the music that they make.