[19 June 2008]
Judging by the music that they’ve put out over the course of the last 26 years, the folks at K Records have never put much stock in the concept of adulthood. From the Beat Happening to Tiger Trap, K artists have always shunned maturity and its trappings, instead embracing youthful naiveté, unabashed amateurism and a do-it-yourself ethos. Of course, these were radical ideas at the time of K’s founding—both the music and the label itself were designed to serve as a reaction to the excesses of 1980s popular culture.
Nowadays, you might still mistake Olympia for Never-Never-Land based on its musical output—most K artists still project that trademark wide-eyed innocence—but that’s not to say that the imprint hasn’t evolved. While the label’s roster hasn’t quite “grown up” per se, a number of K artists have branched out thematically, tackling weightier topics without undermining the label’s core aesthetic. Phil Elverum, for one, has spent the better part of his career pondering his place in the universe while artists like the Blow and Mirah have tackled gender politics and sexuality from a feminist perspective.
Taken in this context, K’s latest signing, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Jeremy Jay, seems a little behind the times. Admittedly, this is at least partially by design: Jay obviously worships at the altar of ‘50s pop and probably fancies himself a little old-fashioned (just look at that boyish bob cut and wool blazer he’s wearing on the album cover). Unfortunately, Jay is also backwards in a less flattering way: while his take on classic pop of decades past is not without its charm, his childish lyrics and lo-fi production sound unmistakably dated when compared to recent albums from contemporary K artists.
“Nite nite,” Jay whispers over the overpowering sound of tape hiss on “Nite Nite”, the album’s six-second-long opening track. This, of course, leads into “Heavenly Creatures”, the album’s proper first track, wherein Jay earnestly strums a steel string while cooing lines like “And Remember I love you / Nite, nite goodnight / I love you / So.” It’s all a bit much to take and Calvin Johnson’s customary, echo-laden production certainly doesn’t help matters. The end result sounds something like a caricature of the Olympia sound.
Luckily, on “Beautiful Rebel”, Jay fares a bit better, channeling Hunky Dory-era Bowie for an upbeat, proto-punk romp. Yes, that earnestly-strummed six-string is still present, though this time around it’s buried under a fuzzed-out electric and the steady stomp of Stooges-esque drums. “Oh beautiful rebel / Out of the woodwork you came / Hardly human / Your wilderness so fierce,” Jay speak-sings, sounding like Jonathan Richman feigning toughness.
“The Living Dolls”, meanwhile, is a throwback to pre-Chuck Berry rock, a track that easily could have chaperoned many a school dance half a century ago, were it not for the bizarre lyrics about living dolls: “Who know of a special place / In the nursery at night / For they remember / They are still children inside.” On the other end of the lyrical spectrum is “Till We Meet Again”, which could have been an early Belle & Sebastian cut, with its bouncy upstrums and simple chord progression. However, Jay’s fey lyrics on the track would probably embarrass even Stuart Murdoch: “Oh loving, till we meet again / I’ll be in love / Till we meet again”.
The title track “A Place Where We Could Go” is perhaps the most lyrically evocative piece to be found on the LP. A teenage escape fantasy, it finds the protagonist “Waiting / On the lamppost like we planned” for a girl to sneak out of her bedroom in a pink dress and black shoes. The exciting conclusion? “And we drive on the night / Smiling on so sweetly”.
It’s quite clear that Jeremy Jay longs for simpler times and it’s not hard to understand why: the 6’3”, boyish blonde certainly could have been a teen idol, had he only been born a few decades earlier. The problem is that, in 2008, Jay has arrived a bit late to the ‘50s pop throwback party. Unlike the singles that preceded it (most notably, the delirious, lo-fi groove of “Airwalker”) A Place Where We Could Go is missing the eccentric flourishes that made Jeremy Jay an artist to watch in the L.A. scene and as a result, sounds more revivalist than revisionist. Sure, Buddy Holly would still turn heads if he walked into a bar and started playing “Peggy Sue” tomorrow. But he’d also probably seem more like a naïve curiosity than a serious artist. That’s because times have changed since 1957. Jeremy Jay would do well to take notice.