The latest chapter in the endlessly fascinating musical chronicle of Damon Waitkus sees the criminally little-known alt-Americana exponent par excellence continue to finely hone his songwriting craft at the helm of the good ship Jack O’the Clock, and seemingly, much like every album that preceeded Leaving California, this labyrinthine ‘chapter nine’ is the best yet.
The album title and the track of the same name refer to the fact that after many years living and working in the Bay Area, California, Damon and his wife and band mate Emily Packard upped sticks and in 2019 and moved to the other side of the USA, namely Vermont. The song gives the impression of both regret and anticipation, as you would expect, the tune mirroring the melancholy. One hopes this does not mean the end of the band, and in this day and age, there is no reason it should, although I’m sure remote working is no substitute for working it all out in a rehearsal space or a studio with your fellow musicians.
Proceedings commence at a pace, as the urgent two-minutes-fifty-seconds of Jubilation heads off at a restless canter, setting a scene of joyful and unconfined music making. The song is over in a jiffy, and before we know it we enter the breathless arrangement of You Let Me Down, which goes through many twists and turns, and has several ideas gleefully wrestling with themselves within its short span. In that respect it reminds me of any Cardiacs song, and while occupying a completely different musical universe, the fervent imagination of the man at the centre of this psychedelic maelstrom rivals that of Tim Smith’s, and that is high praise indeed!
To confine Damon’s songs and the sumptuous instrumentation provided by his cohorts to a neat pigeonhole entitled “alt-Americana”, as I did in the intro, is to damn with the faintest of praise, as this music transcends easy definition. Just listen to the devilishly complicated arrangement of A Quarter-Page Ad, which is far more than the stripped back tune led by violins it may seem at first hearing. There be strange things going on with time signatures here, musical derring-do that goes way beyond this total non-musician’s ability to describe technically. If that’s what you want from a review, you’d be better off reading Guitar Player magazine or somesuch. There’s more than a hint of complicated vocal arrangements here, and the final mini-epic Narrow Gate continues that penchant, opening with a short airing of the most lovely and convoluted singing in the round that wraps the listener in the aural equivalent of a thick double-plaited weave of a knitted winter sweater. And that’s only the start of this, dare I say it, highly progressive and intricate piece of music, with its sax and violins aplenty! Narrow Gate has a heck of lot of off-kilter interconnectedness under its bonnet. I’ve listened to it a few times now, and the overall picture is getting a little clearer with each play. It’s a killer way to end an album that I for one wished was twice its duration, as its 45 minutes fly by in the blink of an eye. But, you know what they say, too much of a good thing makes Jack a complacent boy.
This ongoing revelation of… something applies to the whole album, and I do like music that rewards the effort a listener puts in, and this ticks all the right boxes. Not that Leaving California is a hard listen, oh no. It is one of those albums that seems to sweep you along in its emotional heft, but if you stop to listen harder, all kinds of lovely things await your puppy-like eagerness, for it sends this peculiar doggy home exhilarated and happy!
01. Jubilation (2:49)
02. You Let Me Down (3:32)
03. The Butcher (8:39)
04. A Quarter-Page Ad (3:17)
05. Leaving California (6:57)
06. Fascination (8:13)
07. Narrow Gate (11:49)
Total Time – 45:16
Damon Waitkus – Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Mandolin, Keyboards, Hammered Dulcimer, etc.
Emily Packard – Violin
Jason Hoopes – Bass
Jordan Glenn – Drums
Thea Kelley – Vocals
Ivor Holloway – Clarinet (track 3), Saxophones (track 7)
Josh Packard – Cello (track 4)
Myles Boisen – Pedal Steel (track 5)
Record Label: Cuneiform Records
Country of Origin: U.S.A.
Date of Release: 28th May 2021