[7 May 2008]
The story of folk-pop quintet Jump, Little Children is a cautionary tale about how utterly unconnected talent and commercial success can be in the music industry. They were dropped from their major label in the late 1990s. Despite releasing several more albums independently, touring relentlessly for more than a decade, and building a considerable grassroots fan base, they stayed submerged under the radar. In a just world, however, Jump, Little Children should have been pop princes. They could easily have been the next Coldplay. Their last studio album, Between the Dim and the Dark, was a nearly perfect pop album, filled with lush mid- and up-tempo sparklers that pulled the listener in immediately with hooks nuanced enough to stand up to years of repeated listens. Years of touring and underrated hard work eventually took their toll, though, and in 2005 Jump, Little Children disbanded amicably, each to pursue his own projects.
Jump, Little Children’s frontman Jay Clifford has continued to prove how on-point his pop instincts are. As a songwriter, he’s crafted hits for Howie Day and Australian star Missy Higgins. Her song “Ten Days,” co-written with Clifford, won the Australian ARIA Song of the Year award in 2005. Driving Blind is his first solo outing, and with this disc there is a chance that Clifford will follow the path of the Shins as a beneficiary of Garden State’s Zach Braff’s commercial fairy dust—Braff is directing the video for the first single, “Know When to Walk Away.” More importantly, Clifford is clearly trying here to continue exercising his skills as a creator of richly orchestrated and lyrical pop songs while forging a musical voice distinct from that he set as part of Jump, Little Children.
In this task he largely succeeds. Driving Blind is not a Jump, Little Children album, and any fan expecting arrangements recalling the unique musical contributions of Matthew Bivins’ accordion or Ward Williams’ cello will be disappointed. Such disappointment would be misplaced, however, for Clifford has crafted arrangements that, while featuring much more electric guitar and piano than his previous work, are as atmospheric and moodily beautiful as anything he’s written before. He layers string arrangements over his already ethereal melodies; they lend texture and complexity to the songs. Clifford guides the listener through tunes like the dusky “Paralyze” or the more wistful “Caught in the Rain” as one would be guided through a foggy forest after a rainshower, with elements of the songs alternately revealed or obscured depending on one’s position at that moment.
Clifford also has a talent for unexpectedly evocative lyrical details. “I can hear your voice / Like the loom of an organ’s footwork pedaling”, he sings in “Paralyze,” and later sings of feeling his blushing face burn “like a filmstrip melting, yellowing”. Many songs also work on several levels. The first single, “Know When to Walk Away,” could be interpreted equally as a disillusioned man’s swansong to his lover or a politicized cry of anguish at the manipulation of society during wartime. “Slowly grind away the innocence”, he begins the song with, “if you can hide the evidence”.
As skilled as his songwriting is, the strongest characteristic of Clifford’s work will always be his singing voice. Clifford sings in a silvery tenor with an improbably wide range that in a single note can emote bittersweet nostalgia and comforting optimism. At a recent opening gig for Howie Day in northern Virginia, I heard a man standing behind me in the audience comment, “if he wasn’t standing twenty feet in front of us, I might not believe that voice was real.”
Driving Blind does lack some of the immediate pop magic of some of Clifford’s earlier work. Few of the songs hook the listener as quickly as Jump’s “Rains in Asia,” or “Mexico,” for example. The preponderance of mid-tempo ballads leads some of the songs to blend together on first listen. But Clifford’s voice, his lyricism, and the complexity of his arrangements call the listener back for more. On the chance that this is the album that provides Clifford with the widespread exposure that has eluded him for so long, it will be a more than worthy introduction to his work.