In the music business, bad luck is often the only luck going, and talent doesn’t necessarily translate into success. That’s been the shame and the story up ‘til now for the ultra-talented quintet out of Charleston, South Carolina currently known as Jump (formerly Jump, Little Children). Sporting a shorter name, a new label, and a different producer, they’ve released Between the Dim & the Dark, a collection of ten marvelously ornate pop creations.
Now in their 13th year together, the band features Jay Clifford (vocals, guitar), Ward Williams (cello), Jonathan Gray (upright bass), and the brothers Bivins, Matt (harmonica, accordion, mandolin) and Evan (drums). These classical musicians met at school those many years ago and started out playing Irish folk music crossed with Delta blues. It’s been a long evolution since then, and years of great live performances have added to an intensely loyal grass-roots fan base.
Their first major release, 1998’s Magazine, was a romp through variants of alternative rock, containing a number of various styles and sounds. 2001’s Vertigo took the band to a new level of richness, as they extended their musical reach through several contemplative pop songs that required careful listens for full appreciation.
The new release manages to evolve the group’s signature sound further, offering yet more of the sort of lush, beautiful soundscapes that are unmistakably theirs. What once was a bubbling brew of disparate sounds and energies has been reduced to a powerful musical concentrate full of flavor and intelligence.
As always, the focal point is the vocal wizardry and songwriting skills of Jay Clifford. His breathy voice and unusual enunciations prove an effectively strong instrument for conveying a wide swath of emotions. The band, recognizing this, keeps Clifford’s voice prominently front and center on all the new songs.
The CD leads with the title track, with Clifford singing what sounds like an urgent tale, but turns out to be something far less specific (“Now I know that everything’s alright / If we stay between the glow and the light”). Even in its haunting vagueness, it’s a stark and lovely melody, well performed in full cinematic soundtrack splendor.
“Hold You Down” is a bit edgier, Clifford’s wonderful vocals helmed down by some fine drumming. It’s an even piece, perhaps radio-ready in the sense that it somewhat resembles the kind of song purveyors of British dream pop manufacture. The lyrics are clever, questioning and playful: “Did I, did I / Lend a hand to hold you down / Or just a hand to hold / Did I, did I / Pull the wool over your eyes / Or keep you from the cold”. There’s a lot going on here musically, but unfortunately the production mixes it all together, making it flatter than it need be.
Jump still know how to craft sweetly beautiful music, as evidenced by the delightful “Rains in Asia”. There’s lightness to this upbeat song, the flow of the guitar chord changes, even the lyrics. It’s all about the special feeling you get from a summer rainstorm and one woman’s curiosity about whether everyone feels the same, even outside the boundaries of America. This is about as close a musical expression of innocent charm as one might hope to find.
My current favorite (it changes as I listen from day to day) is the wry ballad “Mexico”. Clifford’s dulcet tones lay down the law for an impending break-up, dictating that he will only let her go if she goes “all the way to Mexico”. It’s a great song, chock full of salient details and lines that ring out the truth, such as: “I won’t let you leave / Not with all my Django, EmmyLou, and Steve”.
“Education” finds Jump heading into contemporary radio sounds, with Matthew Bivins adding in harmonica parts. It’s a great song of advice about the horrible hurts that can befall one in love: “Battered and chained / There is no way you can be saved / From a broken heart’s education”. Still, I shudder to think that anything from Jump might remotely resemble a Dave Matthews or John Mayer song.
The first single is the powerful “Young America”, examining the fate of a young and innocent focus of a fickle country’s desires. It features some of the strongest lyrics on the album: “Too bright to be faded / Too light to be weighted / Too effortless, lucid and true / Will she fall out of favor? / Will the stars not save her? / Will she walk on the razor’s edge or be lost when she burns that bridge? / Will she take what I gave her on her way to young America”.
“Broken” recalls songs from Vertigo in the way that Jay Clifford gets to explore a wider range of vocal nuances. His expressive voice highlights a truly wonderful song—the kind of track that truly defines the musical excellence that is Jump. Again, the lyrics are smart and well-wrought, telling about a man who has made peace with the world’s injustices through the magic of a “dark and gentle kiss from the mouth of blinding bliss”, yet is broken by the give and take of one certain someone.
“Requiem” conveys a powerful message—to preserve the past and emotional truth and passion no matter what. Sadly, the music isn’t nearly as interesting as the lyrics (or as catchy as many of the other songs here), and it drags a bit as it goes beyond the five-minute mark.
There’s a grandeur to “Midnight” (dedicated to John F. Bivins, Jr.), a song of tribute and memory and poignant observation: “Midnight’s never dark enough to hide us from tomorrow”. Just as morning follows night, so does “Daylight” follow “Midnight”. The album’s closing song features beautiful string arrangements, a nice guitar solo, and then some. It gives you a sense of the immense musical talent contained within this quintet.
Let me state for the record that my admiration and support of Jump remains steadfast. Their lush aural tapestries often remain breathtaking; their songwriting is complex and compelling and Jay Clifford’s voice is reason enough to love them. As they move forward, they seem to have perfected that uniquely rich, harmony-laden sound to a tee.
However, I do have some quibbles with Between the Dim & the Dark. For one, I’m not crazy about what new producer/mixer Rick Beato has done on some of the songs. While obviously going after a more polished, radio-friendly sound, he’s managed to flatten some of the songs, sacrificing personality for commercial gain perhaps. Those that have heard these songs in live performance may be in for a rude surprise when hearing them on the new album.
Also in the interest of presenting a more uniform, cohesive album, the current offering virtually ignores the quirky songwriting additions of Matt Bivins. I understand this, but still miss his eclectic contributions. The new album seems more business-like and less artsy than its predecessors. The songs remain grand, but there seem fewer risks taken throughout. I guess I can understand that too—and should it lead to long-deserved mass popularity for Jump, then I’ll happily bite my tongue.
Like Vertigo, this record is one for listening. It’s full of nuanced mid-tempo gems that beg for the full headphone treatment. These hard-working, well-trained musicians create gorgeously grand pop creations—you owe it to yourself to put the time in to appreciate it properly.
Despite my minor qualms, I remain a fan of the new album. Between the Dim & the Dark is a mature step forward, a smartly integrated effort from a courageous and talented band that has weathered many a music business storm en route. They really do have a unique sound, and now that they’ve got it down to a science, one can only hope it leads to bigger and better things. The bottom line is always about the music—and ten new solidly crafted songs from Jump is a welcome treat, end of story.
// Notes from the Road
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