There are plenty of artists out there putting their unique stamp on the musical landscape in an attempt to distance themselves from anything remotely resembling conformity or pop sensibilities. Often, these attempts end up sounding pretentious or – in the worst cases – unlistenable. But the Brooklyn-based quartet JOBS are a rare and wondrous exception to that rule, crafting an intense, fascinating, and unpredictable sound. It’s rare to encounter this particular brand of lightning in a bottle, and with Soft Sounds, JOBS have done it. Again.
Soft Sounds is JOBS’ fourth LP and the first since Endless Birthdays (2020). While they don’t seem to be doing anything remarkably different this time, they are doing it much better and with much more conviction. All of their albums deserve attention and a large fan base, but JOBS are getting better with every new record, and as a result, Soft Sounds may be their best work yet. Time away from each other may have helped, and time with other musicians, including solo projects, has likely ignited creative juices.
In the time since the release of Endless Birthdays, vocalist and guitarist Dave Scanlon released two brilliant solo albums, violist Jessica Pavone made a couple of wonderful, drone-heavy string ensemble albums (in addition to Spam Likely, a delightfully weird 2022 collaboration with Lukas Koenig and Matt Mottel), and bassist Ro Lundberg and drummer Max Jaffe have lent their talents on albums and tours with a variety of musicians.
JOBS’ sound is highly reminiscent of and perhaps inspired by, the New York art/punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The stark, spoken word of the opening track “List the Creator Twice Part 1” owes a lot to the angular works of Laurie Anderson, as Scanlon recites the words in a monotonous, robotic manner: “First, define the creator / Describe a location and an action / Describe details / Describe the medium / Describe the creator twice.” But there is also a great deal of melody weaving in and out of the ten tracks on Soft Sounds. For all its gaunt tension, the single “Ask New York” packs the emotional punch of a heartsick ballad framed as a love letter to the city they call home. “Please, don’t let me die poor,” Scanlon pleads over Lundberg, Pavone’s steady bass, viola, and Jaffe’s twitchy sensory percussion. Sizzling, spacey synthesizers add an additional layer of sonic wonder.
The New York art and music scene of years past bubbles up to the surface again with “…Some Kind of Fog”, as the twin inspiration of Brian Eno and Fela Kuti, omnipresent in Remain in Light-era Talking Heads, rears its head. Jaffe’s sparse drumming lags in tempo in a sideways tribute to Dilla beats before collapsing in beautiful chaos. The complexity of this foursome, all lending a hand in Soft Sounds’ odd musical makeup, can also be beautifully sparse. The title track is haunting in its minimalist approach, and the flutter of synths, combined with Pavone’s groaning strings, creates an unsettling dichotomy.
While the music on Soft Sounds benefits from the circumstances that brought them together for these sessions – the album was recorded during Jaffe’s recording residency at Brooklyn cultural center Pioneer Works – lyrically, it hints at personal life changes. Lundberg’s recently expanding view of their gender may inspire the binary-themed lyrics in “There Is Differing”. Against a labyrinth of synthesizers and pummeling percussion, they sing: “They is differing than one another / Some is different from each other / They am different than the other / They is differing than one another.”
As Soft Sounds begins inching toward a peculiar, intoxicating, downright danceable(!) sound on “Weuhl Umennh Zeuhl”, which, like others in JOBS’ catalog, eventually breaks down into disarray, leads into the closing track, “List the Creator Twice Part 2”. While these “creator” tracks bookend Soft Sounds, part two is much longer, clocking in at a little more than 12 minutes. This allows JOBS to stretch out with dissonant, frenzied guitar, odd time signatures, and a mysterious keyboard wash before fading into silence.
“Give audiences a way into the bizarre and a way out of the normal.” This is written on JOBS’ Bandcamp site and could easily be an overarching ethos for the foursome as they continue to create music that rattles the listener out of complacency, but never in a way that seems threatening or harmful. With Soft Sounds, JOBS continue to guide us out of predictability and into previously unknown musical avenues, lush with possibilities.