With a name like Jackie-O Motherfucker and an album titled Liberation, you might expect agit-prop, or at least some spark-generating musical confrontation. On their second album (after last year’s well-received Fig. 5), this Portland-based collaborative employs no fewer than 12 players, who bring with them a bewildering array of possibilities: the usual guitars and drums are augmented with a clarinet, farfisa, cello, trumpet, turntables, banjo, sitar, two saxophones, and more. Despite the wealth of opportunity presented by so many available ingredients, Jackie-O’s stew bubbles listlessly in the pot. Rarely have so many musicians played such a multitude of instruments to so little effect.
The lead-off track, a 10 minute long drone called “Peace on Earth”, opens with the chime of bells, stumbling drums and washes of cymbal, individual guitar notes that linger in the air, and probably six or eight other instruments layered above and below. The song isn’t slow and it isn’t fast; it’s a circular, mid-tempo stumble that sounds like nothing so much as the beginning of one of Sonic Youth’s show-closing workouts, without the squalling release that Sonic Youth regularly provide. “Peace on Earth”, and Liberation as a whole, disappoints not just because it never changes in tempo or in tone—Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat workouts, for instance, seem to trade on the same groove for days at a time without falling flat—but because it’s ultimately empty of ideas. The instruments have little relation to one another, leaving the music feeling static despite its density.
Just in case we weren’t satisfied the first time, “Ray-O-Graph” follows: a slower, dubbier version of “Peace” that drags on for a nearly interminable 14 minutes. A mournful violin has been brought forward in the mix, but in essence it’s the same song, writ again. Improvisation, Jackie-O’s usual method of composition, is used here as an excuse for flabby, undirected noodling. Jazz has benefitted perhaps more than any other music from improvisation, but even free jazz finds a wealth of ideas in the actions and reactions of its players. That points toward the real root of Jackie-O’s problem: The musicians who make up the group don’t react to one other, they simply happen to be playing at the same time. A certain mood settles over the assembled; picking, blowing, or tapping ensues; and the status quo is preserved.
After the bloated, directionless enterprises that are the first two tracks, the spacey country blues of “Northern Line” benefits immensely from its lonesome-train-whistle theme (nothing like a train song to inspire a chugging forward momentum) and svelte four minute length. As if in punishment for such laxity, though—“Only four minutes? What could we have been thinking?”—the following “In Between” stretches blindly, groping for a musical purpose, for a full 19 minutes. The track unfurls exactly as those before it, leaving one to question whether Jackie-O’s dictionary defines “improvisation” as “repetition”. A variety of instruments clank and twang away with just a touch more dynamism than in previous tracks. The rest of the album follows suit, with small variations that work to greater or lesser effect. In the end Liberation stands as the indie-hipster equivalent of Yanni: light as air, repetitious as sin, and memorable as the sound of your refrigerator clicking on and off.
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