[14 April 2009]
Jill Sobule’s latest album, The California Years, mines familiar territory for the artist: whip-smart, infectious tunes with an edge. Like her musical peers Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, Sobule delves into the pervasive sadness of living with a sense of humor that makes it all okay, even magnetic. Because she is a highly literate champion of the absurd, these moments become infused with meaning. Life is odd, and as a particular moment can be sorrowful, so too can it include a respite to laugh aloud.
It all starts with a road trip. “Palm Springs” has the narrator leaving the cell phone at home, getting in the Prius, finding a place where “something’s gonna happen / To change my world”. Things don’t go as planned. “When I got there / To the motel / It was different / Than on the website”. She calls upon Gram Parsons, Brian Wilson, and Sonny Bono for inspiration. There’s no answer, just a drive to the ocean with the sun setting in the rearview mirror. But the sound of a pedal steel languidly surrounding Sobule’s voice offers hope.
The inner journey lament “Nothing to Prove” is a true gem. Sobule handily manages the irony of the title, explaining quickly that she actually has everything to prove, and she’s pissed off about it. In this case, it’s a label showcase where Sobule, 20-odd years from her career’s beginnings, explains, “I’m here at a meeting / Trying to impress someone / At a dying record company”. The killer is the chorus, bouncy and poppy, wherein Sobule uses the kitchen sink approach, throwing everything she can find into the pot. It makes the song, specific as it is to one person’s trials and tribulations, universal in its expression of unfairness, change, and forced adaptation. Plus it happens to have a hook that belongs on Top 40 radio (if that sort of thing really still existed).
Elsewhere, there are moments of humorous relationship tallying, a heartbreaking relationship final notice, a quest for a lost great (“Where is Bobbie Gentry?”), and the unique failures that can only occur in the alternate universe known as the state of California (“Spiderman”). With her mining of human shortcomings (both her own and others’), she could easily front the Counting Crows should Adam Duritz ever decide to step down. (“Bloody Valentine”, the rocker, proves this.) Throw in a tune that evokes images of Antonio Carlos Jobim and a giddy Bob Dylan meeting in a Texas border town in the 1970s (“Mexican Pharmacy”), and the whole of The California Years is a listen that is as musically and lyrically substantive as it is a complete joy to listen to. Production by Don Was adds exponentially to the appeal of the whole. Few people can make instrumentation sound both cacophonous and breathy simultaneously.
Finding categorization for Jill Sobule has always been difficult. There’s the general term, used too often, of “singer-songwriter”. It works, but it doesn’t do enough to define the particular talents of this artist. She’s too melodic, too angry, too funny. The California Years is another indication of the depth of her artistry, at once breezy, effortlessly tuneful, and irrevocably compelling on an emotional level.