[1 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There are a lot of famous Jack Wilsons out there. The Wikipedia disambiguation page on the name lists no less than 14 famous people with the moniker, including, of course, Jackie Wilson, the American soul and R&B singer, along with the American baseball player, the Chicago-based jazz pianist, and various other boxers, footballers, and cricketers who have come and gone. Joining this crowded space is Jack Wilson, a sensitive singer-songwriter who cut his teeth musically in Seattle but who now calls Austin, Texas home. So, given all of the competition, you might wonder what makes this Jack Wilson rise above the fray. As evidenced from his debut self-titled CD – originally self-released in 2010, but now getting wider distribution by being picked up for re-release by fledging Portland-based country-folk-rock label Fluff & Gravy – Wilson mines a particular brand of country-rock that adds folk touches and experimental tendencies, playing with tempos and speeds of songs within songs. And, well, he’s a bit of a hipster. The cover art features a photo of Wilson in full beard mode, as though he just stepped out of an audition with Fleet Foxes (which would be apt considering the Pacific Northwest roots of both acts), and his ReverbNation page indicates that, as a formulative songwriter, he drank a lot of PBR. However, while his album does have its lovely quiet moments interspersed with scorching barn-burners, Wilson does have a bit of room to grow and mature as a musician. Jack Wilson, basically, is the portrait of a young man struggling to figure out who he is as an artist, and the ride that he takes you on is generally a compelling one, though there’s the odd flourish here and there that could have used a bit more spit and polish.
One thing that is particularly intriguing about Wilson is his voice. This might sound like a bit of a knock, but he sometimes sounds a little like Ed Robertson from the Barenaked Ladies, which, yes, can be a bit distracting if you keep expecting Wilson to break out into a freestyle rap a la “One Week” while listening to this record. However, his lilt does make him a bit unique in the crowded Americana field, and you have to wonder what age and wisdom will do to his pipes throughout the coming years. More importantly, Wilson is unafraid to mess with convention. Opening song “Valhalla”, which begins with the lonesome sound of someone walking on loose gravel as a wind whips up around them, is bolstered by the presence of a horn section at the end, even though the song itself is a little on the rough side, with the second verse breaking down the track’s gorgeous waltz-y flow, with drums struggling to keep proper time during the triumphant climax. If “Valhalla” proves anything, it’s that Wilson and his backing band, The Wife Stealers, might have benefited from having a better producer soften the impact of the song.
Meanwhile, “I’ll Do the Same” is a gently plucked acoustic ballad with careening cellos, which is a bit of an odd blend for a country song. It sort of works, even though the melody is less gorgeous than it thinks it is. The rocking “The Cure”, which the accompanying press release claims features the work of no less than 19 electric guitars (which seems like hyperbole to me), is a ragged rocker that takes a little getting used to because the chorus is played at a much slower tempo than the verses – something that might work well if you are in a prog-rock band like Rush, but seems a little odd for a countrified kick-out-the-jams-style piece that flies the flannel high. However, the album gets progressively stronger as it goes along. “Red Feather” is an offering of haunting, evocative, almost classical guitar. “Clean”, the album’s sole cover (written by Jonathan Byrd), is gritty and well-worn, with weary male-female duetting vocals. “Black Hills Fiction” starts out a slow and sultry ballad but transforms itself by picking the pace into a walloping gallop. The very best, though, is saved for the end: The mandolin-led ballad “The Truth” features a catchy, sing-a-long quality thanks to the repetitive nature of the lyrics. Despite its strength, there’s a bit of a stumble with the words: “To all you women who love women and men who love men / I know that you try harder”. Try harder at what, precisely? Love? It’s a little clumsy, the way that such lines are presented, which is an unfortunate blemish on what is an outstanding song.
Being associated with an indie label, albeit a small one, should open Wilson up to greater radio airplay and more spilled ink in the press. This will likely be a major boost to Wilson’s confidence, and one can only wonder what the sophomore album will be like: Wilson has signed a two-album deal with Fluff & Gravy, and the follow-up is due presumably in 2013. As it stands, Jack Wilson isn’t a particularly bad document and is worth hunting down if you want to seek out someone trying a unique blend of country-rock that nudges boundaries. It is, though, a bit of a diamond in the rough, and one wishes that some of the edges in the songwriting department got sanded down a bit more. There are a lot of Jack Wilsons out there, historically, who have made their mark. This one has made a bit of a nick, and only time will tell if he will join the vaulted ranks of that Wikipedia disambiguation page of famous Jack Wilsons. Indeed, only time will tell.