It must be interesting to be a part of the Jigsaw Seen. You’re a long-time favorite of L.A.‘s indie pop scene, but your full-length product has been limited to two albums despite having been an act since 1989. In spite of that relative paucity, your second album (2000’s Zenith) was nominated for a Grammy. Unfortunately, your name recognition was barely aided by this honor because you were nominated in the widely overlooked category of Best Packaging, an award that most definitely does not follow a live performance by Eminem on TV. What’s more, members of your band can list credits ranging from David Gray and Rufus Wainwright to Dave Davies in various performance capacities, but your own band is still lurking at the back of even your own independent musician’s circles.
The Jigsaw Seen came to life following the demise of Dennis Davison’s earlier band, Playground. Having recently recruited Jonathan Lea to fill a spot in Playground, the two decided to strike out with a new name and a year later had an album out, the Jigsaw Seen’s 1990 debut, Shortcut Through Clown Alley. A year later the band followed up with an EP, and a national tour, but the collapse of their label, Skyclad Records, brought things to a halt. For the next several years, even as the Jigsaw Seen expanded its ranks to include bassist David Nolte and drummer Teddy Freese, output from the band was limited to a few covers for compilation discs. In 1995 Davison and Lea began working on a second full-length album, but it was a slow process. In the meantime, the positive reception of their covers spawned even more covers. Finally, as the album that became Zenith neared completion, the pair formed their own label, Vibro-Phonic, which released the disc and had critics placing the Jigsaw Seen among the ranks of Jason Falkner, The Posies, Velvet Crush, and Material Issue.
After a long labor of love pays off with critical praise and a Grammy nomination (Lea actually had a hand in the packaging design), where do you go next? Davison and Lea took their show on the road as a short acoustic tour of Europe, which ultimately produced the six-song live disc, Perfformiad I Mewn Cymru, but what about another album? Despite the payoff, it was probably too much to hope that they could take another five years without losing something of their momentum.
Someone must have realized that they already had five songs recorded, mixed and ready to go in the already well-received covers that the Jigsaw Seen had already produced for various compilation discs, because instead of following up Zenith with an album of new material, they decided to shoot for an all-covers release, adding five new cover tracks to the five they’d already filed. It’s a risky move. All-covers albums have failed for much more famous artists in the past, and it certainly doesn’t do much to highlight your own creative output when you’re a small, DIY band. But, then again, the Jigsaw Seen’s whole existence has been fairly atypical, and those same covers probably helped to keep the band alive in the past.
If anyone in the JS camp had any reservations, they needn’t have worried. Songs Mama Used to Sing is a covers album that is as skewed to the unique as the Jigsaw Seen itself. If there’s a consistent theme to the disc, it might be “lost treasures”, as each song is a lesser-known gem from some generally very famous acts. And, of course, there’s the title of the collection, kept wholly appropriate as there’s not a song on the album originally released before 1970. Given the relative low profile of the Jigsaw Seen, as well as the forgotten nature of the originals, Songs Mama Used to Sing could pass as a new release of originals and it would still be a good album.
The collection kicks off with the strange, heavy “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming”. A traditional 19th century dirge, the song is given a rhythmic, marching treatment with acoustic and electric guitars, and some bagpipe-sounding instrument. “Tattoo”, an early track from the Who, immediately follows and changes up the mood to something so pop-tastic that the chorus will stick in your head for days. Relying on the original strength of the song’s melodies and lyrics, the Jigsaw Seen add their own flourishes with a warbling, twangy Leslie guitar and pennywhistle. Shift again to the Jigsaw Seen’s take on Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”, where the booming kettle drums are the only things reminiscent of the original and the orchestra parts are taken up by a shredding electric guitar and synths. When it first wound up on the Shots in the Dark Mancini tribute disc, the song actually made the CMJ charts. Truly, “Tattoo” and “Baby Elephant Walk” are worth the price of admission alone.
They take things back down again with the next track, yet preserve the original spirit of the Yardbirds’ “Now I’m Sad”. However, the low tones of the track’s mellotron and e-bow guitars gives the song such a weight that it almost feels as if Gregorian monks are chanting it, emphasized even further by the persistent chime. Discovering the conjoined twins nature of the Bee Gees’ “Melody Fair” and the Hollies’ “On a Carousel” is another instance of the Jigsaw Seen’s genius. Recorded separately for two different compilation discs, the two songs hook together on “Melody Fair”‘s line, “Melody, life isn’t like the rain / It’s just like a merry-go-round”. This theme unites the two songs, but the Jigsaw Seen also see fit to actually mix the outro for “Melody Fair” straight into “On a Carousel”, giving it the feel of continuation.
The album winds down from there slowly, the dizzying pop thrills of the carousel giving way to a fuzzy rendition of the Left Banke’s “Desiree” that sounds like an XTC album track. This is followed by a warped, oscillating trip through a pre-Love Arthur Lee’s “Luci Baines”, stretched long and wavering to a breaking point behind a chiming glockenspiel. Lastly there’s a humming but straightforward take on Scott Walker’s “30 Century Man” (the same song that Catherine Wheel dug up and transformed on the same-titled EP, and which would probably be unrecognizable as the same track here), and a melancholy harmonium/mandolin version of the Kinks’ “This Is Where I Belong”, closing the disc on a sweetly sad note.
Fans of Zenith who were moved by the band’s incorporation of instruments beyond the drums, guitars and keyboards arrangements of most pop won’t be disappointed. Between the tracks on this album, you’ll hear harmonium, analog synths, glockenspiel, e-bow guitar, mandolin, mellotron and optigan loops. And yet, these songs are never over-produced, messy affairs. The tracks aren’t thick with layer upon layer of sound for its own sake, and it saves the entire album from ever sounding pretentious.
If anyone says that one band can’t make do with an entire cover album, play the Jigsaw Seen’s Songs Mama Used to Sing and prove them wrong. It’s not going to earn them a much broader audience, and it’ll probably only whet the appetites of the band’s existing fans, but it’s a great collection of very well done covers. You can appreciate it as a Jigsaw Seen release, and praise the band for it, or you can appreciate it as a return to some long-lost gems, and enjoy the album for bringing these songs back into the light of day. Either way, Songs Mama Used to Sing will make a quirky but worthy addition to your collection.