One of the benefits of being a bona fide indie rock band is that you can cut and paste from other, more firmly established and thus more rigid, genres and not bat an eye. Oh, maybe that whole rap-metal hybrid sounded fresh and innovative once upon a long time ago, but it’s become its own industry, with each act being basically indistinguishable from one another. And indie rock grants the musician with a mission a depth of history to draw from that sprawls all over the musical map.
For Jucifer, who are undoubtedly an indie rock band (hey, they’re from Athens, Georgia!), that pastiche is a sound that draws from some of indie’s past glories, particularly Sonic Youth, the Breeders, Nirvana, and some hints of the Pixies, as well as reaching further outside the confines of the “alternative” to draw in some hard-hitting metal inspiration. Not that metal hasn’t added to the textures of a considerable amount of indie rock in the past, but here we’re talking about re-tooled hardcore.
What hits most people right away is that Jucifer is a duo, comprised of vocalist/guitarist Amber Valentine and drummer Ed Livengood. What makes this special is that you’d never be able to accuse Jucifer of minimalism. For a simple duo, Valentine and Livengood manage to fill up every inch of space in their wall of sound. According to all reports, with little more than the furry of an amped up and distorted guitar and a fierce attack on drums, Jucifer’s live shows rock as hard and as fully as any larger combo. But, where the ablum is concerned, that’s more or less beside the point. It’s what’s on disc that counts.
Frankly, I’d be surprised, albeit pleasantly, if Jucifer’s live performances could live up to the slick and frenzied layers of the album. Only their third release (following 1999’s Calling All Cars on the Vegas Strip LP and 2001’s The Lambs EP), the couple shows a real talent for maintaining creative control and still producing worthwhile material. Stacked up under the guitar and drum blitz are the occasional uses of keyboards, strings, horns, feedback, and even some scratching. But the added freedoms of the studio are not meant to diminish the core of Jucifer’s guitar-rock sound. As the liner notes make plain, this album was “recorded without Pro Tools, loops, samples, studio musicians, big shots or lackeys”. An organic recording process, performed solely by Valentine and Livengood, this disc is neither rough nor overproduced. And yet, without the variety of the additional instrumentation, it’s hard to imagine these songs working so well. Without the ocean-like, morose strings of “Surface Tension”, the song would be flat. The trip-hop intonations of “Lazing” would be impossible with a simple guitar and drum.
So, don’t be fooled. This is a studio record, no doubt about it. But where I Name You Destroyer is concerned, this is a good thing, because it reflects the overlying themes of the album, maybe even more than is intentional. Despite its noisy and gritty furor, there’s a glassy, shallow feeling to this disc. It’s like the sonic equivalent of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. The characters of these songs are flat, two-dimensional beings who exist in a faux-glamour. Becky, of “Amplifier”, is a cocaine casualty, overdosing in superstar fashion. The femme fatale of “Sea Blind” “believes in diet pills and fashion”, and lives in a world of drugs and materialism. Even the sultry, almost sleazy, sexiness of “When She Goes Out”, “Fight Song” and “Firefly” is mired in a destructive danger.
It would be hard to pull this off without Valentine’s voice. The press kit’s invocation of “Portishead meets Black Sabbath” as a description for Jucifer is somewhat accurate on this account. Valentine’s vocals, on the majority of these songs, might remind one a bit of Beth Gibbons, but only as a slight comparison. The fact is, they’re slippery and ethereal, but not exactly jazzy and not airy either. It’s more as if her voice approximates the druggy nature of the valium- and cocaine-addicted denizens of the songs. Dazed and bedazzled, the languid vocals give these songs their chrome and plastic sheen. It’s only on the tracks where Valentine trades in the high for scratchy metal barking (“Queen B” in particular) that the mood becomes something more aggressive and angry. Consequently, these songs seem to be the least effective, despite adding to the variety of Jucifer’s sonic attack.
This is indie rock for true rockers who love their giant riffs and power chords. It’s also a pretty fair reflection of the disaffected, shallow-but-glossy world of contemporary values. Whether or not it’s a celebration or a criticism is left ambiguous, as is the question of whether it’s art or artifice. Valentine and Livengood are playing in the fields of tradition, producing modern rock for postmodern times, but with all that it leaves open, there’s little doubt that it works. If there’s anything we’re supposed to take away from this “expression of love”, it can probably best be found in “Amplifier”: “Let’s all switch on an amplifier / And rock out to the beat”. Fair enough.