Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brown Shoe, "Jackalope"

Review of Brown Shoe's new album, Jackalope
by Dennis Brotz

When I first found out about Brown Shoe sounding like R.E.M., I prepared. And on Christmas night, 2008, I pulled a lead-singer of R.E.M., Michael Stipe, and stayed-up all night listening to Brown Shoe's new album, Jackalope, as Stipe did, listening to Patti Smith's Horses way back when. I didn't eat a bowl of cherries til I got sick, like Michael did, but I did have a few chocolate-covered cherries and was more than pleasantly shocked at the effect this Folsom, California foursome's new effort had on me.

CMJ Magazine ranked R.E.M. The Most Influential Band Of The Last 25 Years. So I was ready to be disappointed by Brown Shoe. Au contrare! Is it possible to be more subtle than R.E.M.? Well, Brown Shoe - to me - may have pulled it off. Each and every instrumental beginning from these multi-instrumentalists - with a plethora of sound makers listed in the credits - was simple, yet gorgeous, and really hooked me in. By the 5th track, Uh Oh, the goosebumps were beginning and by the 13th track, Rivals, they were constant. The ringing church bell guitars and swirling piano surprises were filled with - how to put it? - Santa's Magic Dust! There's big sweeping melodies, tight bass lines, and - yes! - Heavenly Atmospheres! This contrasting sublimely with the somber Ryan Baggaley's vocals.

No wonder this band is known as Cali's best-kept alt-rock secret. Each song is just a God-Breath away from a potential mainstream classic hit. Anthemic. Deadly yet disarmingly honest. The lyricist brings personal experience to romantic love's spiritually innocent devastation. I completely agree with the critics who say Brown Shoe's sound is an intriguing mix of the good components of bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Shins, Coldplay, Sigur Ros, Animal Collective, My Morning Jacket, and Death Cab for Cutie. I even heard hints of The Kinks. And others I can't yet put a finger on. Who said genius knows how to steal? This album exemplifies how high art does this with originality and strengthening the results.

Plenty of touches of Divine Revelation Genius throughout the album, including some fascinatingly deliberately off-grammar lyrics, which caused a shift in consciousness to a higher level for me. In a rare departure for me, I prefer not to get too specific in this review about this, and just let listeners be more than happily surprised in their own ways. I'll give just one example from "Aquarium", where Ryan is singing "We'll swim to the bottom." Without a lyric sheet, I may have had a problem making out what he was articulating. Not unlike R.E.M.'s Rorshach Inkblot Lyrics where, in "The One I Love," I would've swore that under Stipe's howling "Fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiire!", Mike Mills was intoning: "God daaaaaaaaaaaaaamn it all!" or - completely to the contrary - "I AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!" -God's Name. Actually, he's singing: "Coming down on the earth," about Stipe's "Fire!" My own marriage was horrifically breaking-up in 1987, when "The One I Love" began to make R.E.M world famous. I was obviously projecting pain I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy into the lyrics - not to mention a spiritual hunger my hardcore atheism at the time couldn't begin to admit. But it probably helped me not to commit suicide. In "Aquarium," and the other songs, I think something even deeper is going on.

Such is the miracle of Brown Shoe's entire album Jackalope, the word meaning an imaginary animal that's half jackrabbit, half antelope. And more than stimulate the imagination this album does. It sounds better every time I listen to it. And after just one listen - by bringing a strong light to the darkness of broken relationships in ambiguous, sincere, healing detail - it -among things I'm probably still not aware of - completely reversed for me any vestiges I still had of that spiritually bankrupt philosophy: "Hell is other people". An aging flower child's - or any human being's - dream come true!!!

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