I have had this short album – or long EP, whatever – in my “to do” pile for quite a while, and a recent discussion on a Facebook thread with those fine Bad Elephant chaps about cover versions prompted me to finally “get me finger out”, if I may use the vernacular.
Jack O’The Clock, as you may, or more likely may not, be aware are a singularly individualistic bunch of Americans, led by Damon Waitkus, who came together in Oakland, California in 2007. Their own music is an unclassifiable mix of pop, folk, jazz and avant-garde stylings. A band whose sense of melody is as influential as their appetite for experimentation, they make a fine old noise indeed, and you can read more about that HERE.
As I would have expected, in cobbling together a list of songs to cover, they have gone for the eclectic, and calling the album Outsider Songs is an indication of what is within. While you will recognise the names of the artists chosen, you may not know all the individual songs. These are the “outsiders” of those musicians’ catalogues. Curiously, Bjork, a true outsider if ever there was one, proves that you can be hugely successful while retaining a completely unique stance. Her Hyper-Ballad is probably the most universally known song here, and the Jacks’ cover is of course instantly their own. The atmosphere of Bjork’s minimalistic deep trip-hop is retained, with electronica added to the Jacks’ usual more natural mix of instrumentation, the song mirroring the optimistic fragility of the original.
The album is topped and tailed by two songs I had not come across before. Prolific alt-Americana artist Vic Chestnutt, whose early and untimely end at the age of just 45 was an indictment of the venal American medical system, was a favourite of Michael Stipe. His eerily sad Gothic ballad Chinaberry Tree is given a radical re-working, the tune becoming oddly uplifting in the process. This is the way to do a cover version.
At the other end of this short but enticing album/EP thingy, American modernist composer Charles Ives, another outsider and largely ignored during his lifetime, has his appropriately titled Serenity initially played relatively straight, with just Kate McLoughlin’s clear high tones accompanied by glockenspiel, later overlaid with distant electronica mimicking rushing water or wind, a lone bassoon calling in the distance.
In between those two strange but beguiling bookends are songs tackled straightforwardly, and songs completely reimagined, and songs somewhere in between. This is a really well executed and enjoyable album, and what’s more it’s a free download on Bandcamp. Marvellous! If you like this, try out the band’s “proper” albums, they are all rather good.
01. Chinaberry Tree – Vic Chesnutt (5:29)
02. Mute Witness – Morrissey (3:14)
03. The Chauffeur – Duran Duran (5:44)
04. The Wrong Child – R.E.M. (3:48)
05. Think Too Much (b) – Paul Simon (2:38)
06. Hyper-Ballad – Bjork (6:58)
07. Serenity – Charles Ives (3:30)
Total time – 31:23
Damon Waitkus – Voice, Guitars, Hammer Dulcimer, Piano, etc.
Emily Packard – Violins
Kate McLoughlin – Bassoon, Voice, Tin Whistle
Jason Hoopes – Basses, Voice
Jordan Glenn – Drums, Percussion, Vibraphone, Marimba
Record Label: n/a
Year Of Release: 2015