Friday, May 07, 2004

Meanwhile: I await, with bated breath, Razor's review of last night's "media event of the decade."

And as long as I've switched gears, I picked up Joe Jackson's Volume 4 recently. I've always been a big JJ fan, though I was afraid that this one might disappoint. He's reformed his original band, the one that cut the seminal Look Sharp, and I was afraid the new record would be merely an exercise in nostalgia. Turns out it is. The nice surprise is that JJ's self-indulgent nostalgia trip is better than most artists' attempts to be serious. Some of it reminds me of Elvis Costello's attempts to recapture the past with his Attractions sessions, particularly tunes like "Pony Street" or "Tear off Your Own Head." Both artists seem to miss their glory days, though they relive them in much the way you might expect from a couple of forty-somethings.

The record opens with "Take It Like a Man," featuring the punky beats and dirty guitars you might expect from the Look Sharp days, but overlaid with the kind of shimmering piano lines JJ used on Night and Day; "Still Alive" is a bit of snarky, post-relationship fun; and "Awkward Age" could almost be JJ singing to the young man he was in the late 70s, cutting songs like "Fools in Love" and "Happy Loving Couples."

"Chrome," a dark meditation and an ironic half-samba that never breaks a sweat, starts a bit of an interlude, a second movement in unfamiliar territory. It is surprisingly effective, but it is atypical JJ and perhaps not the best kind of material for him. On could imagine Donald Fagan playing this one. Similarly, "Love at First Light" is unusual; it's a clumsily earnest take on the morning after a one-night stand. In the song's defense, I don't think there's an unclumsy way to write about this subject. Perhaps for that reason, the song is effective and about as close to innocence as JJ can get. "Fairy Dust," which owes equal allegiance to "Right" from the underappreciated Heaven and Hell, and Night and Day's "Real Men," is a brutally ironic workout that takes on both homophobia and flashy queening; and "Little Bit Stupid" is a medium-cool take on a hackneyed riff that is saved by clever self-deprecation. "Blue Flame" is nearly unlistenable, sounding only as if JJ were parodying himself; and "Dirty Martini" is a half-hearted attempt at dirty boogie that never finds its groove.

With that, we're back to terra cognita, as the brilliant sendup "Thugs 'r' Us" knocks white suburban hip-hoppers to a ska beat that could be right off Beat Crazy. The closer, "Bright Grey," is a breakup song (taken at "Got the Time" pace) with a bit of unexpected hopefulness and maturity.

None of this would work if not for the fact that the original JJ band is heavyweights and professionals, top to bottom. Graham Maby could be the most tastefully "out front" bass player since Paul McCartney, Gary Sanford has lost none of the edge of his punky attack on "Got the Time," and Dave Houghton is a rock. If they're not having fun on this record, they're doing a fine job of faking it. And that makes the difference. Who wants to watch the Rolling Stones or the Who going through the motions on progressively worse material? This band, on the other hand, seems to have made a point of avoiding the pothole of self-parody on the road of nostalgia.

As a sidenote, the bonus second CD of the set is six classics from the band's live tune-ups before the recording of the album. It's worth a listen, but most of it is self-consciously faithful to the original (rather than playful, in the vein of JJ's Live 80-86 riffing on old material), with the exception of an odd arrangement of "It's Different for Girls" with a piano intro that sounds like it's going to turn into "One to One" until the band kicks in.

The whole thing is worth a listen, and certainly worth the money for a fan who has suffered through Jackson's lean years. This is as close to a real second act as you'll find.

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