My first encounter with Evangelicals frontman Josh Jones came at 2005’s South By Southwest festival. Guitar Wolf pulled a random person out of the crowd to play on stage, and it turned out to be Jones, an actual guitarist, who proceeded to roll around on the floor and generally turn himself into a spectacle even amid the spectacle that is a Guitar Wolf show. I talked to him after the set, but had been deafened enough to be unsure of both his and his band’s name. Enough of the crowd at SXSW are in bands of one sort or another that I assumed this was the only thing I’d hear of them.
A little over a year later, the promo for So Gone shows up. I’m happy just to have gotten both names right, and I’m curious to hear what these guys actually sound like. Maybe Jones is the type to record 60 minutes of himself in pure chaos, but maybe he’s an indie boy more likely to listen to hometown neighbors the Flaming Lips or Starlight Mints. It turns out the chaos from that dramatic SXSW show comes through not so much in dazzling, noisy guitar sounds as in the untraditional song structuring that the band does. The actual sound has more in common with with Norman, Oklahoma space than with Japanese noise, but Jones and bandmates Kyle Davis and Austin Stephens take in a little bit of weirdness from everyone.
“What an Actress Does Best” encapsulates this attitude, as well as the spinning force of the band. It opens with an open, nearly California feel before an organ hints at a desire to trade in this pop for some harder rock. Still, Jones’s tenor keeps the song level, even if not smooth. The rough harmonies eventually give way to a rowdy guitar solo, turning the psychedelia down for a minute to get revved up.
That sort of burst keeps Evangelicals exciting, even if they don’t indulge it enough. It’s also reflective of the band’s of the haphazard nature of So Gone, a strength that can sometimes work against it. The album has that DIY feel in which the musicians don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re letting it rip. The personal explosiveness of the recorded music increases with its recklessness, but it can also veer off in the other direction, turning into something more like play. The group is testing out its own weirdness quotient, you can hear the “What if I do this?” process at work, so necessary for this kind of songwriting, but needing to be hidden on the final recording. It is a debut album, however, so a certain amount of footing-finding can be expected. The personal exploration serves artistic growth, but the recording of it would better fit bonus tracks for a deluxe edition of an album.
Even so, Evangelicals are creative enough and excited enough that So Gone ultimately works. You might feel at times as if you’re overhearing some college kids practicing in your building’s basement, but, for once, it actually sounds like a band who you’d bother to check out at their next show. For all the exploring going on, the band has actual ideas here. They’re working to merge retro-pop with art rock with direct rock ‘n’ roll, and when they succeed, they’re accomplishing it in a personal way. If they sound like they’re at play, they also sound like they’re passionate about their game, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that enthusiasm.