[10 July 2011]
Somewhere in the strange gulch between serenity and bizarreness lies Jackie-O Motherfucker (or JOMF, if you prefer), a collective from Portland with the most badass name in all of New Weird America. And more than any other band going, Jackie-O Motherfucker establishes “New Weird America” as a legitimate genre, playing a thoroughly modern mix of homegrown folk music and the sort of dizzy sound effects people probably hear while dropping acid in the wilderness. I’ll put it this way: If Yume Bitsu doesn’t provide the edge you want but you don’t have the stomach for a band like Excepter, Jackie is your girl.
As players rotate in and out—Honey Owens (Valet), Adam Forkner (Yume Bitsu), and original member Nester Bucket, among the 40-some-odd musicians that have joined the collective—vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tom Greenwood has kept JOMF’s vision sustained since their 1994 inception. He’s an odd guy, but he has an ear for lovely melodies that tend to get lost on those who can’t move past his considerable experimental side. Ordinarily, Greenwood and company mix straight beauty with unpredictable noise and flat-out hard rock the way a cook beats eggs. Earth Sound System, on the other hand, doesn’t allow these pieces to interact. It’s kind of an exploded drawing of the Jackie-O M.O., containing three by-the-numbers folk songs, two crazy-ass electronic improvisations and one punch in the face.
The 7:08-minute “In the Willows” begins Earth Sound System on a note of incredible lassitude, betraying a band that has clearly put out umpteen records. A two-chord guitar figure shifts from one foot to the other, and provides the base atop which Greenwood drawls incongruously about nature’s magnificent power. He doesn’t have perfect pitch, to put it kindly, but I always liked how his imprecise voice caused the instruments to ring with greater clarity and resonance. For some reason, however—possibly the quality of the mastering—nothing works together, and it feels like a marathon to complete. The improvisational electro-acoustic mashup “Raga Joining” arrives next, and although it’s nearly bereft of melody, it’s quite the reprieve. There’s a hint of a tune in this brain-melting miasma, provided by a treated flute and vibrating clarinet/duck call mystery instrument. I’m not sure there should have been two of them, however, and “Raga Separating” is completely atonal and thus less compelling.
“Bring It to Me” is a limp acoustic throwaway, but I found “Dedication” to be catchy and charming. There’s only one line in it, repeated with conviction: “This is dedicated to the person who is trying to find the next right thing to do.” As dedications go, it’s an intriguing one, especially from a collective whose wryness and sweetness are always working in tandem. JOMF don’t make clear how they feel about the subject of their track, but listeners are welcome to make their own associations with it as they’d like. I chose to think of psychotherapists, since I count myself among them, and before the track ended I was singing along.
Then, sounding like an Animal Collective tribute band with no budget, “Where We Go” closes the record in a hugely irritating way. JOMF are capable of rocking out and have done it in the past, but never so confusedly, or so badly. Earth Sound System just isn’t the place for Jackie-O Motherfucker newcomers to start—Valley of Fire and Ballads of the Revolution would be better suited for that purpose—as the album is a very mixed bag and one of this signal band’s duller efforts.