So apparently, the knock on Josh Joplin Group has always been that they sound an awful lot like R.E.M. Now that Joplin has lost the Group, he still sounds like Michael Stipe (as he himself even admitted in the Group’s “Happy at Last”), except now he has session musicians behind him. Unsurprisingly, the sound of Joplin’s new band sounds a lot like Joplin’s old Group, as there is little, if any, stylistic shift from the Group’s 2002 release, The Future that Was.
The fact that Joplin’s new album, Jaywalker doesn’t change the formula up all that much isn’t necessarily a strike against it—Joplin always wanted to be a folk singer in the mold of Dylan or Guthrie (how he ended up at Stipe is anyone’s guess), and nobody ever asked either of them to change things for the sake of “artistic development”. They did what they did (and in Dylan’s case, still does), and squeezed some classic material out of what is, at its heart, a very limited musical setup. Who’s to say that Joplin can’t do the same as he finally branches out on his own?
Well, here’s hoping he’s just getting his feet wet as a solo artist, because honestly, listening to Jaywalker kind of hurts.
Most of this has to do with the fact that the entire album sounds painfully dreary. Granted, there are times when it’s supposed to sound dreary, but even the dreariest of dirges should be backed with a little bit of life. The upbeat songs, for their part, sound as if the people playing them are bored out of their skulls. And who knows? Maybe they are. Matt Henry Cunitz is responsible for the bass and everything resembling a keyboard, and he’s got a background that’s as much jazz as it is rock. Tommy Lambert is a journeyman drummer who’s played and filled in for a pile of bands at this point. Maybe Joplin’s brand of lite folk-rock just uninspired them straight into mediocrity. I mean, if you can’t muster up a little energy for the (pseudo-) title track of your album, you’re in trouble. “Jaywalker’s of the World” (sic) rides on a banal shuffle that tries to fill out its sound with pianos and multitracked backing vocals, but the pianos play lots of quarter notes, the drums never come through with a much-needed fill, and Joplin himself sounds as though he’s going to take a nice, long nap when the song’s over.
And then there are the times that Joplin attempts to fill out his songs, taking them beyond the guitars ‘n drums (‘n occasional keyboards) setup of ordinary “folk”. “Mortimer’s Ghost” is chock full of instruments, with a veritable orchestra of strings and horns, none of which have any identifiable reason for being there other than to put a blanket on what sounds at its core like a lazy Tragically Hip track. “A Hard Year” adds some strings as it goes for something like sentimentality in its pathos, but the intense boredom evoked by the rest of the song’s instruments turn the strings from sentimental to maudlin.
So it’s established that listening to the music won’t get you far on Jaywalker. Mercifully, Joplin knows his way around a decent lyric, and listening to those lyrics is what will keep you sane if you decide you need this album anyway. When you name a song after a classic work of literature, as Joplin does with “Pilgrim’s Progress”, you had best have some solid lyrics to back it up—and Joplin does quite nicely, positioning Jesus himself as a journeyman Wal-Mart greeter. “There’s just so many sides to hate / Forgot which side I’m on,” Joplin sings, and it becomes obvious that, at least lyrically, the song is a perfectly poignant observation on today’s religious/political climate. That religion and politics seem to have shifted from philosophies of love and trust to hate and shame is not a new thought, but it’s all in the delivery, and Joplin delivers. “Empire State” is a nicely put ode to self-affirmation with some beautiful imagery, and “Stay” is a melancholy plea that finds joy in the static.
“This’ll be the last song that I write / About the things in my life I don’t like,” sings Joplin on album opener “Mr. New Years Day”, evoking a sense of optimism and promise toward the future. Unfortunately, such promise doesn’t hold up over the course of the rest of the album. Perhaps such a lyric would have been better placed toward the end of the album, where it could have pointed to the future of Joplin’s career—he’s an excellent songwriter, and he’s released some great songs. He just needs to put the same kind of energy that he puts into crafting a great lyric toward performing the music that frames that lyric. Jaywalker may, on its own, be a misstep in Joplin’s career, but it’s a misstep that holds promise for the future.