Jana McCall doesn’t like to be pigeonholed. Don’t compare her to Mazzy Star, or else she’ll really be unhappy. “That irritates me because it seems that if you are a female singing mellow songs with a little slide guitar, then that’s the instant, banal comparison people will make. I’m not even a Mazzy Star fan,” quips Jana. And rightfully so. Where it is others are drawing that comparison from seems puzzling, as McCall’s music strikes a richer vein of melancholy than Mazzy Star ever aspired to.
McCall hailed from the band Dickless, from Seattle. She released a critically acclaimed self-titled disc in 1998. Now she returns with Slumber, a hypnotizing sort of an album that culminates in a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” that closes the disc. Prior to that, however, are eight original tunes that uncover McCall’s penchant for striking verse, moody melodies, and sharp soul bearing. It’s the kind of thing that wannabe tough ladies like Ani Difranco would kill to make.
Slumber is almost the sort of album that would have been held up next to Lou Reed’s Berlin back during his halcyon days. It drips with emotion and release that will resonate within every listener it touches, and likewise will cause an almost perverse attraction to make the listener want to hear more, whether or not the messages contained within the songs contain any comfort whatsoever.
But let’s not peg McCall as a depressing down and out. Slumber is not ultimately one of those albums you put on to wallow about in. Instead, there are very powerful moments that transcend the gloom, taking the album away from the clutches of goth drudgery. It is, in effect, a capsulated collection of stark moments with a definite light at the end of the tunnel.
Speaking of the gothic fringes, McCall at times does remind me of Nico during her The End phase. Not that McCall has that cold monotone drone to her voice, but the instrumentation and overall sensation of the music does have a very stately and serious flavor to it that Nico often liked to explore on her albums. The opening song here, “Eyes Aglow”, certainly does have that lurking, brooding quality to it. Yet it also tends to embrace a twisted kind of heavenly pop as McCall sings her ahh-ahhs that pulls the tune out of its darkness. Filled with hard guitars, weeping strings, and crashing drums, the song is beautiful as it is haunting.
McCall definitely has a taste for the surreal in her music. “Carolina’s Crown” is a stark, almost entirely acoustic number until it reaches the end when some creepy murmuring tones take a solo spot. What it actually is that is being played at this moment is hard to tell. It almost sounds like a cross between a bass, a tuba, and someone just making vocal sounds. It may very well be just a slowed down vocal track, but it is absolutely eerie and a perfect complement to the sad guitar chords.
Slumber definitely feels like the kind of album perfect for listening to on a gray morning when it’s too damn cold outside. “Still” captures that feeling perfectly as sad violins sweep themselves over an almost death-march like of a beat. “Bloodlines” takes the drama one step higher by adding pulsing synth notes and swirling cymbal crashes. At its apex, the song creates the kind of dense wash that the Beatles made on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Abbey Road before descending back down into its own quiet state.
“Birthday” picks up that Nico vibe once more, though this time it sounds more like a Chelsea Girls trip with some distinctly Lou Reed-esque guitar framing the song and a “Black Angel’s Death Song” sort of rhythm slowed down a notch. On the other hand, “Falling Again” is a six-minute extrapolation featuring a cheap keyboard beat and McCall waltzing her melodic tapestries on top of it.
And as for that cover of “Echoes”, it’s terrific. McCall has bettered the original by cutting the song’s length in half to little over nine minutes while still retaining the odd spaciness that made Pink Floyd’s version so good. It’s the icing on the cake for an album filled with moody musings and delicate vocal theatrics. Basically what it all this means is that Jana McCall has a real masterpiece on her hands. Slumber should easily be added to any indie rock fan’s best of list this year. It’s that damned good.