Eleven Thirty Records, 2005
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/23/2005
Josh Joplin might be the most criminally underappreciated songwriter in America today.
Signed by Artemis Records a few years back, Joplin -- then making music with his eponymous Josh Joplin Group -- issued the strong but partially glossified album Useful Music and its brilliant, largely ignored follow-up The Future That Was . After spending time in the urban wilderness of New York, Joplin has re-emerged with what may be his most personal -- and most resonant -- set of songs yet.
Jaywalker, the new indie disc, finds this whip-smart songsmith writing and playing straight from the heart, with results that are nothing short of sublime. This is pure, unadulterated Joplin, a compendium of slices of emotional life that are so true they ache, rendered in potent lyrics that shout craft and intelligence. The beauty of his work is that Joplin portrays the unpredictable tides of life with a matter-of-factness that's both detailed and organic, creating songs that tickle both the intellect and the emotions.
On the upbeat side of things, kickoff cut "Mr. New Year's Day" rings in the new album with a jangly rumination on change and renewal, as Joplin's band -- an assemblage of old friends, no big-name stunt-casting here -- rocks steady behind him, electric guitar, bass, drums and piano complimenting his own hard-strummed acoustic rhythm guitar.
Things take a quick turn to the serious -- or perhaps seriously sardonic would be more accurate -- with "Pilgrim's Progress," a skewering of evangelical Christianity that reminds of Ben Folds' "Jesusland," casting the Christ as a Wal-Mart greeter and offering that "There's just so many sides to hate I forgot which side I'm on... Everybody loves the hometown team."
Some of the best songs here, it must be said, are the sad ones. "One Becomes Two" reaches for -- and grasps -- a kind of majestic melancholy, a U2-ish repeated electric guitar figure simmering across the horizon as Joplin narrates an exquisitely painful breakup ("We did all we could do" goes the aching refrain). "A Hard Year," burnished with string and steel accents and plaintive piano, paints a clear, grey picture of depression ("the sun is long overdue"). Finally, in "Arms To Hold Me" Joplin mourns the death of his father over acoustic and strings, until the song powers into a propulsive instrumental outro that's fueled by the kind of nameless, primal surge of emotion we only know when losing a loved one.
On the flip side of things, "The World On A Shoestring" is a gently lilting sunbeam of a song about the simpler joys of life, and "Empire State" finds our hero declaring himself "the luckiest boy in New York." And then there's "Mortimer's Ghost," whose reeling Dixieland horn section somehow fits perfectly into a song in which our optimistic narrator tries to cheer up a despairing pal ("I've got it figured out / Life is a long conversation / And love is a call that never ends / Don't hang up the phone you're not alone").
The title track -- both expansive and precise -- ties these extremes together with a kind of minimalist anthem for those who dare to stand out from the crowd, full of wonderful images like "She holds out her handbag and bullfights with cabs," and capped by an affirming coda ("Love is never lost").
On Jaywalker, Joplin has discarded any pretense of catering to others' expectations; as a result, he's never sounded better. By keeping these songs close to their elemental roots, he's ensured they shine all the brighter for the lack of flash. He hasn't downsized his musical vision -- he's right-sized it. It's all about the songs here, and they are simply wonderful.
[For more information, visit Josh Joplin at www.joshjoplin.com]