The history of rock is littered with questions that echo the spirit of their times. In 1974, Nick Lowe posed a question that expressed the irony of frustrated pacifists when he wrote, “What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” In 1978, Roger Daltrey sang the simple and direct lyric that has become an anthem for everyone from anti-authoritarians to television forensic scientists: “Who are you?” In 2007, the Jai-Alai Savant has staked its claim on rock history by asking the words that every man who’s ever watched Lost in Translation or Match Point has likely thought: “Scarlett Johannson, why don’t you love me?”
The Jai-Alai question, which is also the title of the third song on their debut full-length, The Flight of the Bass Delegate, offers listeners a surprising amount of insight into the group. Like the question, the Chicago-based group is youthful, irreverent, and offbeat. Like so many young, modern bands, the Savant’s songs cross genre boundaries and defy simple description. If an adventurous listener wanted to take a stab at classifying the band’s sound, that person might call Flight of the Bass Delegate a restless rock album infused with punk energy and healthy doses of reggae, dub, and ska.
Although it has its own unique sound, the Jai-Alai Savant does invite comparisons to several mainstream rock bands. The second track, “Arcane Theories” sounds like a more danceable version of the Offspring. “White on White Crime” brings Franz Ferdinand to mind, and “Sugar Free” falls somewhere between 311 and ‘70s progressive rock.
The band that most strongly resembles the Jai-Alai Savant is the Eternals. Both groups hail from Chicago, and both play a brand of rock that relies on dub and reggae for inspiration. Damon Locks, the frontman for the Eternals, even created the album art for Flight of the Bass Delegate. The Eternals recently released an excellent album, Heavy International. A quick comparison of this album with the latest release from the Jai-Alai Savant yields musical insight into both records.
Heavy International is brainy, abstract music that manages to stay physically rooted through its dance rhythms. As a result, it manages to be accessible, challenging, and satisfying all at once. Bass Delegate is arty, too, but it focuses more on songs than sounds. Ironically, the songs are what keep the record from being a total success. An old musicians’ adage says that a good song should sound complete if accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. The Jai-Alai Savant’s songs are emotionally charged, but much of their effect depends upon the enthusiasm of the vocalist and the ferocious energy of the arrangements. If the band ever decided to release an unplugged album, listeners would be unlikely to be fascinated by the songs’ melodies, chord changes, and structures.
The songs on Flight of the Bass Delegate might need some polish, but they definitely don’t lack excitement. The Jai-Alai Savant moves from blistering rock to understated dub. The band’s hyperactivity never compromises their arrangements or their melodies. Many listeners will be exhausted after the Bass Delegate’s Flight, but that is merely an indication of the Jai-Alai Savant’s strong ambition.
Taken together, the records by the Jai-Alai Savant and the Eternals provide an intriguing portrait of a fascinating new musical movement. The fact that two bands from a cold American city could draw inspiration from the music of warm, Caribbean islands is a testament to rock’s increasing globalization. Overall, the music of the Eternals and the Jai-Alai Savant provides a good reason to stay tuned into the Chicago rock underground. If Chicago bands keep making albums as good as Heavy International and Flight of the Bass Delegate, rock fans might just find the title of “Second City” to be too modest.