Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Jezabels - The Brink


Win win; all-smiles; right place at the right time. Such terms barely get used or even flung about in the realm of music - usually it's the opposites to such terms that end up passing from out our heads, involuntarily. But that's exactly what could be said for Aussie four-piece The Jezabels at present. In a corner of the World whose continent's music scene(s) are going through a, how shall I put this, investigative period as of late, 2011's Prisoner - the debut LP for this rock-fused outfit - were surprisingly, but understandably (given the roster of talent already departing Aussie shores to jet around the World) one of the post-noughties least excessively discussed band to emerge from down under. On its own, Prisoner was an immaculate fusion of alternative and garage that carried forth more importantly, a need - and want - for melody and harmony at its heart. Collectively, The Jezabels brought their own take on Northern Hemipshere sound without sounding too adapted to the knock-on effects of their own homeland. For an Australian band, their debut felt immacutely established as it did Atlantic; its scope and its ambition coming off less a debut vying for attention, and more a gestured release from an act having landed in their comfort zone. A testimony to Aussie variety sure, but more-so Jezabels' imaginative stretch and interest in seems, in not being weighed down by the acts whom had a head-start and now have their own star on the  Atlantic walk-of-fame.

Keeping to the formula would be understandable had The Jezabels been at logger-heads with themselves on where their working methods lay. But The Brink, two years after an aspiring eclection of raw song-writing with melodic affection, feels almost possessing of some alterior motif in its new direction - Jezabels' love for harmonics and catchy hooks now taking a more pop-orientated feel both instrumentally as well as vocally. For lead vocalist Hayley Mary, the shift is slightly more in line with the listener's focus than the music initially provides. Self-titled album opener The Brink is quick to demonstrate this shift towards a slicker, polished - but still empathic - pop cirque with stacato guitar riffs atop a shining melodic lead. Mary herself remains in that flux of feminine perspective - lyrics bending from romantic longing to demanding outpour. And initially, with the first verse and chorus out of the way we're already dangrously close to suspecting-turn-declaring the dialogue as failing to match the ambition. Well that doubt is instantly shattered; accompanying withdrawn piano and drum work alike standing alongside Mary's blistering vocal intensity. What starts as subtle exersion quickly turns to blinding exuberence. So too on following track Time To Dance, there appears an intent distracting of the listener so as to make Mary's eventual high-note pour feel evermore engrossing. Initially though, the first half is led by strawn guitar strings that too leave space for some retrospective accoustic strumming to reumburse that pop emotion without letting it affect the music's marching, panoramic scope.

It's not until we get to the heart of the album - to the middle offering of these ten tracks - do we find Jezabels' (and more-so Mary's) focus slip from off the general road of pop and into the avenue of synth-pop; the same type of female-led, melodically-just synth-pop that dominated 2013. While the glistening synthesizers still shine through admittedly on a track like Look Of Love - the stomping, anthem-sized percussiveness and focus on a beat rather than a melody immediately spring up CHVRCHES comparisons - Hayley Mary's soaring vibrato and spiking vocal swing not only capitalize on the track's upbeat synthesis, but maintain a prominence on the band's guitar play and organic percussion beating through in parts. Beat To Beat while can be commended for showcasing Mary's deviating her vocals further into vibrancy and coliquocial hooks, in these offerings there doesn't appear as much emotive flair or focus on melody to console the 4/4 repetition. Guitars do get their spotlight as does the percussion, but as a whole the song's more blurred production doesn't add anything relatively fulfilling.

But without question, one of the underlining qualities and true shining examples to Jezabels' prowess on their sophomore, even admist the bobbling synth notes and beats - again as is the case with Angels Of Fire - the character and passion of the quartet's instrumentation and playing comes through resoundingly higher than any electronics. Whther it be guitarrist Samuel Lockwood's landscaping guitar melodies or drummer Nik Kaloper's transition from leader to revolutionary, there's no denying (or even escaping) the passion and drive the band demonstrate. And despite this; despite the rowdy electric guitars and slight reverb that adds colour o Mary's winding stretches of vocals, she still asatains clarity and prominence in a song intent on expanding, but still trying to feel overly personal. Visually, No Country is a welcome feat in sweeping the listener (and myself) into imagining this as some possible outback/desert stretch; infinite horizons blazing across at the same pace of the track's bass drums and guitar rhythm. Mary's vocals too, even when lesser in their pop extravagance or lyrical punch, do justice in carrying the listener - responsibility left to us to soak in the band's garage-alternate stretch of dust, sun and one narrow road stretching on to infinite.

Even with this addition of imagination left at the listener's disgression, there's no denying that Jezabels are less reliant but without question certain of using the traditional verse-chorus-verse structures to help the finer detail in their pieces ring out. The End does highlight some unwanted or perhaps less-immersive use of block-by-block song-writing in the front of chord patterns and the inevitable build-up of a bridge to the release of a louder chorus, and while I'd stick to proclaiming Mary's presence is one that's shining without overly dominating, there's no shunning away from the way tracks such as these demonstrating a void of melodic and harmonic contrast like previous compositions explore, and have explored to immense effect. So to find Got Velvet approach the former component in not just a way that returns us to past cheer, but presents something fresh yet so simple - a fade-in to an already underway lead of guitar strums, bass fuzz and heartfelt drum beats - definitely makes the listener sit up (again) and take notice. Even when Mary returns to the forefront and the lead reduces to accoustic strumming in one part and vocal unshackling in the next, the track's momentum is all too present still; satisfying more-so when the guitars are the last to return and resume that same effective attachment to the listener's senses.

The first, and only time it must be said, time that we get to experience the band's overall collective state of emotional refining and beauty is on the cleverly-titled Psychotherapy. Stricken, arpeggiated piano keys make an appearence and eventually fade off from view to uncover one of the band's more wholly sincere sides from off the entire record. Yes we get the sweeping tearduct-pouncing string efforts to add heart to what is already a Mary-led opening of honesty. And while I would have liked to have seen the band sustain this stripped-back variant on their spatial mannerism, I still find satisfaction - though not absolute awe - with the way the band treat the first half with an accompanying second half that doesn't spoil or override what's already been established. All You Need fttingly ends the record on the strengths of the band that have both gently and exuberently greeted us along the way: sweeping guitar melodies; engrossing, warmful drum beats and Mary's soothing-come-passionate message/outcry of longing for someone and something, but accepting the outcome will likely end with her still alone and/or troubled further by internal conflict.

It would be understandable for fans of the band's debut to turn to this record on first or perhaps second time and take a disdain to this less-garage, less-fuzzier aesthetic in favour of more uplifting orchestration with a clearly less-than-optimistic centre in the lyrics. But the more you listen to this particular follow-up, the more you realize that The Jezabels - aided by their confidence on debut - haven't actually taken anything away in the first place. Instead, The Brink stands as the next step in the Aussie quartet's suiting both hemispheres as an act willing to bet big, yet land comfortably back on home turf with not just a vast handful of well-crafted songs, but a compelling and enthralling experience that highlights both Hayley Mary's strong and ambitious vocal range, but too the remaining band member's own inspiring skills on guitar, keys and percussion alike. Albums such as these highlight Australia's growing similarity with Canada: to nations brimming with untapped attitudes, interests and cultures that highlight the breadth and rich detail hiding amidst the open ground. The Jezabels are not only venturous space incarnate, but in our particular hemisphere where interest is mostly contained to pop and other common fields fabricating a particular kind of excelled expansion, their sound appears like some lush, ensuing experience defined by both its internal and external stimulus. Pop, rock, synth-rock-pop, it matters not. The Jezabels both build and identify themselves through ambition. And their ambitions here are met with some of their most striking offerings to date.
~Jordan Helm

7.9

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