On the face of it, this debut album by former breakdancer and hip-hop enthusiast Jack Allsop is supposed to be the bastard Xerox of Mike Skinner’s Streets project: a working-class Brit waxing schlocky and rhythmical about his sad prole life. So says the British press, and anyway he was discovered by Chas Smash of Madness, and the word “geezer” crops up in the lyrics. But while the Streets garage sound was directly descended from the Specials, the antecedents of Just Jack are vague. Robbie Williams? Mr. Mister? Level 42? Face it: once aspiring geezers start getting mentored by Chas Smash, we’re gonna have trouble on our hands.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: Just Jack is a pretty bloke who laid down supposedly Streets-inspired tracks in France, then got some exquisite hype in the UK. A Cure-inflected remix of a song entitled “Snowflakes” fired up the clubs. A year later, the gusts of hype started hitting the Atlantic seaboard. Now, the aforementioned album, The Outer Marker, has been released in the States, complete with smash remixes.
What to make of it? On first listen, The Outer Marker is astonishingly banal and humorless. If what you love about Mike Skinner is edgy wordplay, strange & epic song constructions, good jokes, semi-tricky beats, you’ll find none of that here. Just Jack’s lyrics are awful, an itchy distraction from the album’s more likeable traits. Beatwise, most of the songs here sorta plod or waltz in a generally forward direction. (Funny, ’cause the percussionist on some of these tracks is a fellow named “Tony Thompson”, though he’s obviously not the recently deceased Chic drummer.) His voice (occasionally he raps, mostly sings) has a friendly blanket-like warmth, like Neil Tennant, but he’s not much of a singer. Or rapper. And though Just Jack has a taste for the epic — crashing thunder, saxophones, triangulated piano hooks — he only approaches the sublime when he’s sampling hooks. He ain’t got nothing I ain’t got.
Yeah, I hear you: he calls himself “Just Jack”, so what am I expecting, really?
And so, with expectations duly lowered, I listened again and again. My first discovery was that Jack and friends made a genuine attempt to give this album gestalt: the tunes do fall nicely on top of each other; there is flow. My second discovery is that this album sounds much better blaring from speakers with other people in the room than it does on headphones. The reasons for this are twofold: you can ignore the lyrics when you’re in a crowd, and the sound was clearly engineered to circle freely around people’s heads. Breathy samples, chick choruses, piano plinking: you get what I’m saying. It’s a friendly non-distracting sound.
The opening track is an endearing epic, “Let’s Get Really Honest”, which is hooked by 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love” and features some tender melismatics coming out Jack’s voicebox: “And now she’s out of my life / Nothing but strife / So I don’t mind.” Yes, I know that makes no sense, but I like the way the song slowdreams its way to the ground — like a sighing skydiver. 10CC’s melodic bassline opens the chute.
“Paradise (Lost and Found)” is just as good, or at least it had me nudging up the volume knob on occasion. Sadly, it makes no references to a Miltonic sense of humanity’s fall and redemption. But it’s slightly groovy (danceable even), with very effective use of two lazily strummed guitar chords. Plus it does have the line which for some reason is singled out for “gatefold” status in the CD booklet: “She told me people came here to get drunk before they died.” (Clearly, the tune’s most significant line is the one about the “freaky carbuncle” stalking him.)
So those are the first two tracks on the disc: after that, things get blandified. The album’s apparent centerpiece, “Snowflakes”, is just weird and annoying in its unremixed form. A plodding beat and lots of ridiculous significance on the lyrics sheet. “Do you count the flakes when it snows? / Do you feel the heat or only the afterglows?” Well, Jack, no I don’t count the flakes because that’s impossible, plus I ain’t got obsessive-compulsive disorder. Counting the flakes really ruins the beauty of a snowfall, you know? Forward to track 12 and you’ll hear the very same song but with the Cure’s “Lullaby” providing the hook and a more seismic thrust in the bass (this was the smash Cured by Temple of Jay remix). Guess what, it’s pretty great! Strange how these things happen. (Dan the Automator also tries his hand at a mix here, but you’re just struck by how flimsy Just Jack sounds compared with, say, Kool Keith…)
Still, there’s a couple good tracks among the album’s remains. A sad mellow vibe pervades the drug-regretful “Heartburn”, which sounds both Adult Contemporary and immature in all the best ways. “Triple Tone Eyes” always makes me grin: a synthesized beat-fluttery city-driving song that could be mistaken for an ace Pet Shop Boys B-side. And the multi-part epic “Snapshot Memories” has one nice moment: the incompetent yet endearing evocation of Old Skool breakdance culture in Part II.
Mediocrity does raise its benign bland head all too often as the album plays on. Yet let me tell you about the very worst track: “Deep Thrills”. This is Quiet Garage Storm, I guess, with woo-pitching and sexy submarine metaphors which cause my genitals to curl up inside my body. I don’t know how to describe the alienating, supposedly “sexy” synth swoops and flamenco guitars, but it’s enough to cause a blind date to lurch out of their Rohypnol daze and flee. “So close your eyes / And we can navigate by sonar.” No Jack, no!
So. On the whole, I think Just Jack is a fearless non-talent and 2003 was his lucky year. The Outer Marker is occasionally entertaining, not very horrible (unless song lyrics matter at all to you), and three of these songs will still sound pretty good in 2023. If you do buy the album, please put “Paradise (Lost and Found)” on a mix for a friend. That’s a pretty good track. Then keep your eyes out for the new Streets album, Grand Don’t Come for Free, due out in May.