Jackie O Motherfucker: Wow!/The Magick Fire Music

Jackie-O Motherfucker
Wow! / The Magick Fire Music
All Tomorrow's Parties

Call it noodling for the cause. Because even deep in the heart of one of their many 10-minute-plus ambient rock opuses, even when a member of Jackie O Motherfucker repeats the same phrase for the tenth time, even when there’s suddenly nothing to hear but a slowly rising and falling bass swell, you get the feeling that it’s all going somewhere. That every bit has a purpose. That this band, in short, has a mission. It’s like a home economics exercise in which every penny saved is a penny earned; the dynamics creep from inaudible to forceful, phrases twist and turn with infinite subtleties of expression, strange, barely-there sounds pop in and out. All this seeming randomness gestates within a surprisingly traditional rock womb — drums, guitars, bass — whose rhythmic and melodic drive, in flavors ranging from jazzy to dubwise to rockish, carry growth forward.

The violins, Arabic flutes, inexplicable synthesizers, saxophones, and turntables that rise and fall are in one sense the periphery, the sweet chocolate around a chewy pulsing center. But of course, this periphery is also itself the center. Jackie’s main conceit, shared with Glenn Branca and others, is that insofar as it is the surface, the intonation, the coloring that imbues each piece of pop music with its heart, that surface can be turned back in on itself and moved back towards the tradition of classical music that has for so long stood in opposition to pop. When Jackie are at their most propulsive and loud, what results are mini-symphonies that, in addition to frequently rocking themselves, also pay homage and refer to much less artsy fare; they’re not quoting “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, but they’re occasionally quoting Keef’s guitar sound.

You’ll get most of the rockism on the first of the two disks. The Magick Fire Music was originally released in on Ecstatic Peace! in 1999, and while it sort of drifts into place with the jangly, loosely atmospheric “Extension”, things quickly get into more melodic, structured territory. “Bone Saw” even has a harmonic progression, an actual song structure, one that arrestingly unfolds into an honest-to-goodness jam, a rhythmically driven head-nodder that would’ve made the Floyd proud (though they would’ve missed the bombast, no doubt). There’s the Calexicesque dark twang of “Second Ave. 2AM (For David Wojnarowicz)”, its slowly mounting bed of dread taking the form of clattering cymbals and a manic, shadowed alto. You think you hear some sort of Fascist march in the background, just barely. “Jugband 2000” seems to hint at similar darkness, but just when the sampled preacher and skittering drum machine are about to drive you to your grave, there comes a downright cheerful guitar, something that could have come straight out of an early, even slower Tortoise album. You expect early Bob Dylan at any moment. From there things accelerate, decline, ascend, and cycle through more flavors of ambient twang (the banjer-fied, parodic “Quaker”), free guitar jazz, bits of dub, drone, etc. It all hangs together beautifully, a matter not just of visiting fantastic spaces but of moving through them. What JOMF are doing is clearly not songwriting; it’s more as if they had absorbed all the songs a long time ago, and are distilling both their moods and their moves down to the hyperextended basics. The Magick Fire Music finishes (inexplicably, on the second disk) with “Black Squirrels”, its two-note sitarish lines and rollicking drums splitting the difference between Sgt. Peppers and Acid Mothers Temple.

Much, much different is the second of the two albums collected here, taken up mainly with the two tracks of Wow!. This was a European release in 2000, and whether by design or not it certainly plays into my American preconceptions of what Europeans are into — instead of reasonable five- and 10-minute tracks, we get the truly epic 24 minutes of infinitesimally accumulating drone and scrape in the title cut, the sort of track that has birds chirping and a radio tuned to static at the six-minute mark. Neither this nor the equally wanky “Love Horn” are by any stretch bad, but they’re easier to describe as useful than entertaining — useful for relaxing, mostly. I’ll take the rock.