March 05, 2004

The Joggers "Solid Guild"

Most bands that make a major dent in the music scene produce two types of offspring: the “biters” and the “torch carriers.” The biters are usually the first to spring from the womb, shortly after the seminal band makes its initial splash. The biters slavishly imitate this band’s style, hopping on a bandwagon in order to ride their way into similar fame and fortune, and end up producing material of lesser inspiration and effort. These bands are often forgotten quickly. The torch carriers, on the other hand, take their time absorbing their influences, thus ensuring a much longer shelf life. They adopt the traits that they like about the seminal band, discard the ones that they don’t, and add a few quirks of their own to keep things fresh. While few of these bands end up having the same degree of impact on the music scene as their influences, their music ends up being just as essential. Many of the torch carriers, in retrospect, end up becoming BETTER than the bands that inspired them.

Take Pavement, for example. Thousands of bands have used Pavement’s happy-go-lucky melodies, their elliptical wordplay, and their lackadaisical musicianship as springboards for their own music. Most of these bands ended up merely being “biters”: does anyone OTHER than me remember Nel Aspinal, Sammy, Jackass, or the Snow Queen? The Joggers, on the other hand, fall squarely into the “torch carrier” category. On their astonishing debut Solid Guild, this Brooklyn quartet have given Pavement’s sound a 21st-century update through removing almost all of the slackness from the musicianship and singing. Axmen Murphy Kasiewicz and Ben Whitesides turn the album into a compendium of the coolest extended-guitar techniques of the last ten years, and drummer Jake Morris splits the difference between Keith Moon and Spoon’s Jim Eno with playing that manages to be both flashy and tightly regimented. Last but not least, the Joggers attempt and accomplish something that most charisma-deficient indie-rock bands wouldn’t even THINK of pulling off: four-part vocal harmonies.

Supposedly, the quartet took cues from the shaped-note vocal system, a late 18th-century style of singing designed to enable people who couldn’t read sheet music to sing group-based arrangements of hymns. Written notes are assigned different shapes, participants arrange themselves in either a square or circle, and everyone sings while inwardly facing each other. This style of singing is most commonly heard in early Southern gospel, but the Joggers use it to add melodic color to songs that would otherwise implode from the tension generated by the endlessly-mutating riffs and rhythms. It’s obvious that none of the Joggers are strong enough singers to pull off a gospel song on their own, but when they sing together, it’s a miracle of pitch-perfect synergy. It’s like listening to a barbershop quartet consisting entirely of Julian Casablancas clones, but much more sonorous than such a description would imply.

The Joggers’ nasal, slightly slurred vocals are run through light distortion and pushed slightly behind the instruments in the mix. Without the assistance of a lyric sheet, the words tend to serve as mere placeholders for the band’s gorgeous harmonies. What few lyrics can be deciphered tend to be pointed and dismissive. Opening track “Loosen Up” begins with the words “Precious and abstract, lazy and/or dumb,” which could be interpreted as a criticism of the current state of indie-rock. Another song, “Oriental Alarms,” contains the barb “You said it, but you did not say it first or best,” and asks in its chords, “Who cares what’s irrelevant anyway?” However, the joie de vivre that permeates every song on Solid Guild (which can largely be attributed to the vocal arrangements) already casts a negative light on many of the band’s joyless contemporaries without the lyrics having to belabor the point. Therefore, it makes more sense (in my opinion) to treat the lyrics as sound effects and simply bask in the heavenly harmonies.

Even if Solid Guild were instrumental, the album would still come strongly recommended by yours truly. “Hot Autism” boasts finger-tapped guitar runs that speed up and slow down at the most awkward moments, as if someone was playing with the pitch control function on the reel-to-reels in the studio. It’s a sound that I haven’t heard done that well since Don Caballero’s What Burns Never Returns. “Back to the Future” begins with an ascending/descending riff that could’ve been the impetus for the greatest song Polvo never wrote, if it weren’t for the band’s decision to pursue bouncier Spoon-like territory twenty seconds later. On “Little Kings,” a series of scalding string bends set the discotheque rhythms aflame. Jake Morris gives “Oriental Alarms” a lopsided momentum by inserting triplets into his drumming at the most unexpected moments. On “Every Other Word,” the single-note dueling of both guitarists suggests what Television would sound like in a state of post-millennial panic. The first half of album closer “Same to You” coasts on a jaunty circular guitar riff and lets the rhythm section do all the work. It’s a groove that Les Savy Fav should bang their heads against a wall for not writing first and it makes me wish the first three minutes of the song were stretched to six.

Are the Joggers better than Pavement? Not yet, but they will be if they make a couple more albums as good as Solid Guild. They’re better musicians than Pavement ever were, catchier songwriters than Polvo ever were, and better singers than anyone could reasonably expect from a band so indebted to mid-‘90s indie-rock. Joggers, I urge you to let your flame burn brightly for as long as possible. You make me proud to have been born and raised in Brooklyn…even though I live in Texas now.

--Sean Padilla

Label Website:
Artist Website:

No comments: