After spending a few weeks with Zootime, Mystery Jets’ U.S. debut, I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. I suspect it’s because the band, even a year on, don’t quite know what they want to be when they grow up. The British band received a fair amount of buzz for its UK debut, Making Dens, last year, and though the album was set to jump the pond, it never quite made it. Never fear, though, because Hollywood label Dim Mak has stepped up to the plate—hence Zootime, the somewhat repackaged version for American consumers. There are four new tracks (though one of these popped up on the U.S. single for “Diamonds in the Dark”), but the meat of the album’s the same… only now it feels somehow less carefree, more calculated.
Technology’s against overseas bands in this situation. Having piqued the interest of a number of blogs and websites last year, there’s little by way of “story” that’s completely new, or that could propel a groundswell of support here. Alright, the band is unconventional—the dad’s in the band, yes, and they live on that quaint little island on the Thames—but that’s all irrelevant to the experience of listening to Mystery Jets. And over that same period, as new wave refuses to die one British band at a time, the only real anticipation looking that way across the Atlantic is for two albums entirely different—LP7 and Kala.
But I think for those Americans who discovered the band last year as one in a line, one they could perhaps lump in with Futureheads and Maximo Park, the relationship could benefit from a fresh introduction. Mystery Jets are no Maccabees, no matter how superlative their NME epithets. And if we originally judged them more mainstream than their musicianship suggested, it’s not necessarily a weakness. Yes, Zootime does sound remarkably polished, the arrangements pulled tight, but that’s the band, then. And when vocalist Blaine Harrison sings “Let’s all play nurses and doctors until real nurses and doctors catch us” on “Little Bag of Hair”, the eerie emotion is genuine.
That song’s one of the highlights of the album, a weightless meditation on illness whose swirling groove builds to a monumental finale—yes, there are elements of prog rock, but the whole thing’s so disembodied that the emotion is revealed, rather than obscured, by the music. There are a number of other good songs on Zootime (I’ve written about a couple here). In general, the newer cuts show a band increasingly sophisticated at using the instruments and studio tricks at their disposal. “Scarecrows in the Rain”, for example, is entirely successful—a demented folk stomp driven by aggressively strummed acoustics and slowly-chanted, multi-tracked vocals. The proggy guitar bends are still there in the second verse, but they’re in the background, colouring the composition.
Mystery Jets have to do a few things, still, to ensure they’re not dismissed as another one-off British buzz export. They have to settle on their own style (hopefully it’s not the straight dance-rock stuff, but more of the emotive chant-based inventiveness). You can see part of this evolution on Zootime itself—“You Can’t Fool Me Dennis” was originally released as a single in September 2005, whereas “Diamonds in the Dark” dates to almost exactly a year later. Their newer material is definitely a step up, though, even if it’s a step into a more mainstream sound. And that’s enough to keep hoping for something great from Mystery Jets, sometime down the road.