Friday, March 8, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: Jet, The Juliana Theory, Ted Leo (2003)

Jet's Get Born

If you’ve read this column, or any other music-oriented scribbling during the past year, then you are probably aware that a full-fledged “garage-rock” revival is underway. What all the scribes and rock crits are actually trying to say is that after a decade of grunge, alt-rock, hip-hop, and nu-metal (all of which have their charms), there is a new wave of honest-to-Chuck Berry, guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll edging its way onto the airwaves. Three chords, no waiting, and good times are right around the corner (if you live in Detroit or NYC, maybe). Led by bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Vines, the new “garage-rock” revival is nothing more than the Seeds and the Barbarians dressed in modern garb for 21st century sensibilities.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some great music being made behind the commercially-driven trend. The major labels, may Elvis smile down upon ‘em, can’t help but root up a truffle every now and then in their blind attempts to discover the “next big thing.” Around these parts, the biggest thing to hit the box this month is from Australia’s Jet. The band’s debut, Get Born (Elektra Records) is the most bone-rattling, toe-tapping collection of rock tunes to come down the pike since Julian Casablancas of the Strokes discovered a hair style that he liked. As measured by the Reverend’s trusty riffometer, Get Born averages an impressive forty-thrills per minute.

Get Born rips open its own shrink-wrap with the pavement-pounding “Last Chance,” kicking off with a monster drumbeat, slash-n-burn guitar riffs, and young, loud and snotty vocals reminiscent of the Yardbirds in the band’s prime. “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” is the best White Stripes knock-off that you’ll hear this year, a full-blown blues-rock rave-up that roars like a rabid freight train ready to twist off the tracks. The rest of Get Born is equally audacious, songs like the fuzzbox romp “Get What You Need” and the bouncy “Rollover D.J.” mixing sloppy, Nuggets-inspired throwback rock with vintage ‘70s vibe (think Mott, as in the Hoople) and chart-happy ‘90s-styled Britpop (i.e. Oasis). Unlike a lot of garage-rock poseurs hopping on today’s bandwagon, Jet sound like they were weaned on old 45s, delivering the real goods with a smile and a sincerity largely missing from their kissing cousins in America.

Somewhere in the shadowy Netherlands between punk rock and hardcore lies the audience-friendly musical sub-sub-genre dubbed “emo” by my fellow rock crits. Featuring personal, almost confessional lyrics that are actually sung, rather than shouted behind the glorious din of instrumentation, the style has spawned its own heroes in bands like the Promise Ring and Jimmy Eat World. Emo is beginning to creep into the mainstream, and the Juliana Theory will be at the forefront of the movement when the masses embrace the music as their own. The Pittsburgh band recently jumped from the indie ranks into a major label deal, releasing the impressive album Love (Epic Records) in late 2002.

Live 10.13.2001 (Tooth & Nail) is the last gasp for the band on its former label, and not a bad document of the Juliana Theory’s indie rock roots. Recorded live in the band’s hometown just weeks before signing with Epic, Live 10.13.2001 draws its material from the Juliana Theory’s first two albums. The performance reveals a band in transition, discovering its power and evolving beyond the cultish emo audience and into a radio-friendly, ready-for-primetime rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Music Box Superhero” and “Into the Dark” showcase soaring vocals matched by rattlesnake guitars and earth-shaking rhythms, intelligent, emotionally accessible lyrics reeling in young listeners like a trout gobbling an worm. With decent songs and a sound that connects to the audience, Live 10.12.2001 is a welcome addition to the Juliana Theory canon.

Ted Leo's Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead
In the perfect world that critics and the crazed like myself are always referring to, Ted Leo would be a fat and sassy rock ‘n’ roll superstar and Justin Timberlake would be a mere footnote in the annals of popular music. Leo has been around for over a decade, fronting the influential tho’ little-known band Chisel and working the solo angle with his mates the Pharmacists. Leo released the excellent Hearts of Oak (Lookout Records) earlier this year, the album a shoo-in for many rock crit’s end-of-the-year “best of” lists. The lengthy nine-song EP Tell Balgeary, Balgury Is Dead (Lookout Records) is a nice follow-up, a tasty collection of new songs, covers, and a couple of overlooked tunes from Hearts of Oak filling out a highly recommended disc.                
Leo so effortlessly mixes punk and folk-rock with shades of British mod and Stax-styled soul that one wonders why the world hasn’t recognized his genius. Influences here include Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello, the Kinks and the Jam, but with a world of music to draw from, Leo isn’t one to be limited to a single style. His voice is a passionate, high lonesome wail that reminds me of the substance, if not exactly the style, of Roy Orbison’s wonderful vocals, Leo capable of great verbal gymnastics. The verbose, poetic lyrics of songs like “The High Party” and “The Sword In the Stone” and the title track showcase a sardonic intelligence and clever wordplay, evincing a certain world-weariness, syllables rolling off Leo’s tongue like rainwater from a tin roof.

The choice of cover songs is spot-on, Ewan McColl’s charming “Dirty Old Town” reverently delivered as a fast-paced raver while Leo easily mimics Neil Finn with a spry reading of Split Enz’ “Six Months In A Leaky Boat.” Leo’s original “Loyal To My Sorrowful Country” is a tour de force, the patriotic artist turning his back on a country that has turned away from its people, Leo’s energetic six-string work channeling every musical dissident from Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg. Why waste your hard-earned money on commercially approved dreck like Sheryl Crow or Clay Aiken when an artist as thought provoking, intelligent and entertaining as Ted Leo waits on the fringes of pop culture? (View From The Hill, 2003)

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