December 03, 2005

Josh Joplin "Jaywalker"

Josh Joplin is a singer-songwriter with a penchant for REM. Well, there's no way of knowing whether or not that's true, but it's not hard to imagine, as he sounds exactly like Michael Stipe. He's been making music for several years, getting a big record deal during that brief time when David Gray represented the very brief 'singer-songwriter' trend. But the big deal didn't quite work out, yet Joplin's persevered, and after excellent records like Useful Music and The Future That Was--which are well worth the time to dig out of the dollar bin--he's returned, this time without the "Josh Joplin Group" moniker. It's not hard to understand why labels courted him, his voice is soft and pretty and sweet, and even though it instantly sounds like Michael Stipe, it also, in a way, reminds of Guided By Voices' Tobin Sprout: soft and pretty, though somewhat rough and imperfect.

Unfortunately, Josh Joplin isn't Michael Stipe or Tobin Sprout. That doesn't stop him from trying, though; Joplin's earnestness and sincerity is charming, even though it usually makes his songs sound terribly affected. His backing band doesn't help, either; the drums occasionally sound clunky and off beat, while the arrangements sound unfinished, resulting in songs that aren't as sharp as they could be. Case in point: "Arms to Hold Me." For the first minute and a half, it's just him busking and singing rather intensely. It's pretty damn good, but the band inevitibly joins in with clunky drums and sloppy playing that simply underwhelms this otherwise good song. The pretty David Gray-esque "A Hard Year" is a gorgeous song in spite of the overpowering drums. On the songs where Joplin doesn't try to project his voice, such as on "Jaywalker's of the World" and "Empire State," the results are quite satisfying. But these moments don't make up for the record's overall awkward production.

Jaywalker is a frustrating record, because it sounds half-assed. If Joplin had less talent, it would be easy to dismiss this record, but he's capable of better. Nothing's more frustrating than listening to a record by someone who can do better. Honestly, Joplin might benefit from a record that's truly a solo record. His acoustic demos on his website prove that he might be better served by exploring that sound next time around. Considering this is his first record without the "Josh Joplin Group," perhaps Jaywalker is a 'transition' record for Joplin. Yeah, I'll accept that, and I'll take comfort in that, for Jaywalker is a surprising C+ effort from an honor student.

--Joseph Kyle

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