These days, pure talent is no guarantee of anything. The music business for most is an ever-uphill struggle against hardship in an attempt to get product out to the people. Often, there’s little justice and what seems an overabundance of bad luck. One can tour endlessly, have the talent, and still remain relatively unknown. Such has been the case with the Charleston, South Carolina-based quintet known as Jump, Little Children.
Vertigo, their best album to date, was recorded last winter at Supertramp’s Media Vortex studios and was ready for release long ago (May, to be exact). But a few weeks before the scheduled debut date, the record label went bankrupt and things got caught up in legal tangles. Talk about being all dressed up with nowhere to go. It took a few unsettling months of negotiations but ultimately, the band managed to get back the material in order to release it on their own label (EZ Chief) in late September. Now they are hoping that devoted fans will do their part to spread the word. Again, one can say it’s all part of the uphill battle toward success.
When the core of the group first met at the North Carolina School of the Arts (where they were studying classical music), they started out playing traditional Irish folk music crossed with Delta blues. Named for a line from a Sonny Terry/Brownie McGhee blues song, Jump, Little Children have come a long way since. Turning their talents to the world of pop, they released a homespun CD in 1996 The Licorice Tea Demos and gained momentum enough to get signed to the Breaking Records division of Atlantic Records.
In 1998, their first major release Magazine displayed marked growth for JLC as singer/songwriters. As produced by Brad Jones, Magazine was a chance for the group to learn the ways of the studio, and to show more of its talents in what essentially was a romp through variants of alternative rock. It garnered some minor notoriety among a very devoted fan base, and the song “Cathedrals” made some inroads onto college radio station playlists.
Now with Vertigo finally released some three years later, the group’s evolution continues. Much of the adolescent fun of Magazine (“Not Today, “My Guitar”) has been replaced with more ornate production of largely contemplative pop songs. The group’s multi-instrumental talents are more evident here, and though the songs may be less “easy” to absorb, they represent a clear step forward musically.
More than previously, these new songs rely on the soaring vocal wizardry of Jay Clifford. Clifford has developed his clear voice with a nice range into an instrument that conveys emotions convincingly. In short: if you like Clifford’s voice, you’ll love this CD (I do, but beyond the voice, there’s plenty to recommend about Vertigo). This is the kind of CD that takes time to appreciate fully—some of the songs take several listens to make their hooks apparent. There’s a lot happening in this lush aural tapestry, co-produced by Clifford and Brad Wood (Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair). The careful listener will hear accordions, tin whistles, mandolins, cellos, and intriguing percussion mixed into the standard rock combinations of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards.
Of course, the team that put these soulfully rich sounds together was a masterful one, including mixing by David Leonard (Barenaked Ladies, Prince, Santana) and engineering by John Porter (Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music, The Smiths). Jump, Little Children are the Bivins brothers (Matt on harmonica, mandolin, accordion, etc. and vocals, Evan on drums), Jay Clifford (lead vocals and rhythm guitar), Jonathan Gray (upright bass) and Ward Williams (cello and lead guitar). As a tight playing unit, the band is known for its theatrically engaging performances. But even if you can’t catch them live, fourteen new solid-length songs provide much to ponder here—just don’t be daunted by the challenge.
Some have likened the record’s sound to that of Radiohead, circa The Bends, and I suppose that’s an apt comparison. Jump, Little Children offer a similarly melancholic and moody collection here with challenging multi-textured arrangements that grow more hauntingly compelling with each listen. In a sense, this collection might even be slightly more pop and less strictly guitar-dominated than Yorke & Co.‘s earlier effort, with fragile melodies wrapped in sonic insulation. JLC grows beyond the confining structures of traditional pop songwriting, and many a song proves unpredictable in its unfolding.
The CD opens with the title track, a catchy number exploring the dizzying vertigo of being in love that has rightfully been chosen as the first single: “Leaning from a balcony / As if without a care/ Wondering should I take a fall / Or should I take the stairs / Have I already fallen over and now spinning in the air I don’t know / ‘Cause I’m in this vertigo.” None of these songs are simple. Strings and complex arrangements surround soaring vocals that wrap around verses, choruses and middle bridges in impressive manner. “Angeldust (Please Come Down)” is another notable cut here, building gradually into an emotional plea of a song.
There definitely are a lot of British influences. The song “Too High” lifts the octave-apart vocal stylings of Difford & Tilbrook for its verses and when you hear it, you’ll be amazed at the uncannily captured Squeeze sound (while the chorus returns to a more familiar Jump, Little Children feel). The phenomenal “Mother’s Eyes” is a definite Radiohead-type composition, mixing orchestration and sonic nuance into a much longer composition (7:26). “Lover’s Greed” works off a percussive chord structure similar to that found in Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”, yet makes its own statement as it examines all that has been taken by the endless insatiable hunger of love: “What then from all the vine and seed/ on the fragrant air of Spring they feed / They come in swarms of two / Like me and you / Fattened by the love that they need.”
“Hold Your Tongue” builds off a simple arrangement (percussion and piano) with warm accordion backing, until swirling guitars provide harmonies to the vocals in a middle section, then it returns to the simplicity of the first verse. The sounds are clean, and the instruments are not ever lost in the often-complex mixes. “Made It Fine” offers a sound similar to many of the songs of Magazine. “Words of Wisdom” is one of the more immediately endearing songs, dealing with memories and legacies inspired in part by a battle with cancer by the Bivins’ dad. The sensitive lyrics fit into a deceptively upbeat melody: “Every precious memory / And broken hearted tragedy / Will walk into eternity / And not fade away.”
“The Singer” offers spoken vocal rap poetry lyrics from Matt Bivins, much in the style of his song “Habit” from Magazine. Some songs teeter on the edge of operatic self-indulgence, and might have achieved more with a little bit less. Jay Clifford, a big fan of the poetry of Pablo Neruda and e.e. cummings, often tries too hard lyrically, sometimes landing in the inscrutability realm of say, many of Jon Anderson’s Yes lyrics.
In truth, if you have the patience to discover the merits here, there are no bad tracks. This truly is an album for listening (less upbeat, more mid-tempo), and then listening again. Like Radiohead, the songs aren’t always easy to digest and not everyone will have a willingness to put the time in. Still, intelligent pop lovers will reap rewards for such efforts. J, LC is gaining confidence in their talents and abilities and translating it into noteworthy work that deserves a much wider audience. Jay Clifford has a winning voice, and the musicality of all five members combines impressively here, employing more broad musical styles and rhythms than ever before, kicking things up quite a notch on the pop complexity scale.
Some financial backing has allowed them to tour with their current material (they’re even singing the national anthem at Fenway on May 1st) and the good news is that they’re taking off June and July to write songs for a new album they hope to record this year and release early 2003. Perhaps Jump, Little Children will be the next Radiohead. But even if they simply remain the first Jump, Little Children, you won’t be disappointed. Vertigo is an ambitious and gracious effort by a talented group worth hearing and watching. Help their success by giving it a listen and, if you like it, spreading the word.