[8 September 2008]
I’m Not Jim is the result of a rather singular collaboration that started with the novelist Jonathan Lethem and singer-songwriter Walter Salas-Humara. After an encounter at a Silos gig (Salas-Humara’s principal band), the Cuban-American songwriter and the novelist decided to sit together, album-in-48-hrs style, and bang out an album. Together they mapped out the structures, Lethem scribbled the words, and Salas-Humara penned the melodies. After two days they had 11 songs, which together with three spoken word pieces form the project’s album You Are All My People. A further layer was added by the production duo the Elegant Too (Philip Hernandez and Chris Maxwell), who apparently re-tooled and re-arranged these songs a considerable amount, so that I’m Not Jim’s more nebulous music-by-post project than actual band. Plus, by the way, Jonathan Lethem doesn’t appear in any capacity on the recorded material.
Lethem’s involvement in I’m Not Jim will naturally turn curiosity towards the lyrics, though his hand’s not completely obvious. Seems like Lethem’s grabbed the old adage that obvious lyrics make memorable pop songs, yet there’s a casual strangeness in the imagery that belies a fertile imagination. “The Pitchers Gave Up” might be the supreme example: seemingly jumping off from last night’s baseball roundup, it imagines a pitchers’ utopia:
Where hits are illegal
And hitters get shot…
An inning’s eternal
The mound’s fifty feet high.
The refrain, which repeats at the end of the song, comes off a bit trite in comparison: “a strike zone as big as your mind”.
Let’s talk a little about the three spoken word tracks, which sit rather uncomfortably beside the conventional songs. They’re not serious, but are hardly outright jokes either. The oddest is “Walks Into”, which fractures badly-told joke stems (think “a man walks into a bar”), with cleared throats and mis-steps; and it devolves into a weird, elliptical conflation of strange images. The instrumentation’s twisted, relaxed funk that never makes much of an impression. Over it, on “Missing Persons”, Salas-Humara talks about “Taped instructions / 90 minutes of silence / You accidentally erased it”. The thrust’s more atmospheric than anything, but these ellipses can throw you off.
So, what of the music? Not being familiar with the work of the Silos, I couldn’t tell you how closely it hews to that mould. However, I’m Not Jim does sound pretty much like any classic rock-listening alternative rock band played by talented but approaching-middle-age musicians. It’s not so disparaging: Portastatic fits into this category, and their music’s fresh and always interesting. I’m Not Jim uses a similar musical palette—basically, guitar-based pop with organ—but somehow comes off sounding somewhat more staid. And the music’s similarly familiar: at some times it lifts straight blues progressions, at others straightforward power pop chords. When the musicians let pretense down, they can write relaxed and attractive pop rock, though; “Uncomplicated” is as the title suggests, and probably the most effective song of the collection.
Despite the unusual genesis and composition of these songs, I’m Not Jim sounds more like a pet project than the work of a fledgling legitimate band. Hit and miss spoken word interludes, and songs that, while agreeable, fail to form a striking impression, make this more of a curiosity than necessary listening. It’s pleasant, sure, but not really that exciting.