There is something vaguely disturbing about Turin Brakes’ JackInABox. It’s as if they made a deal with some sort of minor devil that has resulted in a bargain gone awry. The hooks are there, but they aren’t memorable. The production is crisp but overwhelming, claustrophobic even. The singing is stylized and obviously thoughtful, yet pretentious and insincere-sounding. If they had only gone to Satan himself, they no doubt would have negated all the above drawbacks, creating a pop masterpiece akin to Pet Sounds, or at least Fun Trick Noisemaker.
JackInABox, Turin Brakes’ third full-length, is an exercise in pre-middle-aged pathos and ennui. The pathos, though, is not heard in the music, which would have made for an entirely different (and I’m betting largely interesting) record. Instead, you sense it in the utter lack of conviction, of fire, in most of the songs. It’s the sound of those who spend all their time planning their next vacation, always thinking about relaxing. It’s the sound of someone who has decided to notice EVERY sunset and peppers conversations with a choice positive phrase (“Beautiful, man, just beautiful”.) These people may be envied for their attitude (I guess), but some notion of darkness seems to help with depth. It fleshes things out. This is what JackInABox lacks.
“Up above the clouds / It is always a blue sky.” The narrator in “Above the Clouds” may be searching for a profound statement. After all, the idea of staining memories is mentioned in the song. What comes across is sentimentality. Similarly, in “Forever” (the title says it all, no?), the listener hears these choice lines: “Inch by inch / I’m infected by your love / Head to toe / I’m chemically changed.” I think they were trying to be clever. This is the nature of JackInABox. It’s obvious Gale Paridjanian and Olly Knights have talent. There’s just a lack of tension that results in a CD of mostly fluff. It’s not terrible. But it’s not compelling. Sadly, I get the feeling Turin Brakes were in it to make a compelling record.
Furthermore, the change in styles throughout the record is simply distracting. “They Can’t Buy the Sunshine”, the opener, is a pop festival on speed. “Asleep With the Fireflies” is a lite-FM funk tune. It wouldn’t sound out of place on Prince’s first album, For You, which is definitely not his best. “Buildings Wrap Around Me” is an earnest modern folk song. The title track is some weird world groove with guitars (Dave Matthews anyone?). Tim Robbins’ character in the film High Fidelity would have loved it.
But then there’s the two great tracks. “Over and Over” is a slice of AM radio double-chocolate pie. It’s perfect in that you know the structure of the pop song, but yet a unique use of it can just floor you. “Red Moon” employs a method that slowly builds the song, pulling back just when you think it will break out, and delighting when it finally does jump at you. It’s these two songs that kept me coming back at the CD again and again, searching for a missing link that I never found.
No doubt there is an audience for this. Paridjanian and Knights are professional musicians who know how to build a song piece by piece. “Over and Over” and “Red Moon” prove there is a soul buried in the heart of Turin Brakes, too. But for the discerning music listener, JackInABox is only bound to be a disappointment at best, and annoying at worst. There’s only so much one can do with contentment.