The album starts with the sounds of waves crashing, boards creaking, and a British-accented chap shouting, “All hands!” A pealing ship’s bell segues to a dreamy bed of synths accented by slowly plucked acoustic guitar and chiming keyboards. OK, so we’re in vintage prog-rock territory. That’s cool. But after the song blossoms into a sweeping, soaring, pinkish soundscape, a cheesy synthesized siren wails, and the music suddenly transforms into … a porn soundtrack?
As a light organ bubbles and a clavinet honks and vamps, twin electric guitars squeal, whine, and swerve. It’s as if Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Steely Dan have converged, naked, on a coke-strewn recording console.
The song, “Jacobite,” is one of more than a dozen weird pleasures on the first recording in three years from JJ & The Rogues. Recorded at a Fort Worth garage studio, the album Sweet Talker began life in 2011 not long after JJ released the fantastic EP Stare Down. Sweet Talker expanded from a six-track EP into a bona fide long-player naturally. “We figured if we were going to take on this project and record it ourselves, we wanted to do it right,” said Kelly Hill, manager and guest percussionist. “So over the span of a few months of researching recording equipment and techniques, we figured we might as well reach for a full-length record.”
There are some good reasons for Sweet Talker’s delay: Drummer Eric Navratil left the band not long after recording began, bassist Chris Carfa took a leave of absence for a year, and the remaining members –– Jameson Cockerell (vocals, keys, lead guitar), Joshua Townley (vocals, keys, guitar), and The Hendersons’ Nolan Robertson (background vocals, percussion) –– all had (and still have) day jobs. “When someone got sick, [or there was] bad weather [or] an equipment failure … what we were working on was put off until we could get it fixed or the person started feeling better,” Hill said. “All those lost weeks added up.”
The guys kept on truckin’, though, and it’s not like they were just bashing out three-chord rock. Sweet Talker is pretty complicated. That they managed to also keep it poppy and accessible is a testament to their commitment. And genius.
Beautiful tuneage abounds. The most flavorful, wondrous song is “Mrs. Lyndonne.” With its genteel Beatles-esque melodies (and aaah-ing and oooh-ing during the chorus), the fourth track is sort of like a microcosm of Penny Lane: a young ruffian pining for an older, married woman. Townley, his voice sounding eerily like Elvis Costello’s, all stuffy-nosed, masculine, and quivering, sings, “Aaaah, aaaah, what will it be now, Mrs. Lyndonne? / Naughty or nice? / I can serve equally well.” Like the song, the entire album is stellar and, thanks to its ELP/Steely Dan/Beatles vibe, unlike anything you’ve probably heard around here in a long time.
“I think the main thing to keep in mind is we never gave up,” Hill said. “Although there were a couple of times it seemed to almost fall through the cracks, I think our love for the music kept all of us going.”
Sweet Talker, Hill continued, has been an accomplishment in more ways than one. “Looking back, there’s no explanation why we did what we did or when we did it,” he said. “We just felt like doing it for ourselves. To think about doing something like this for popularity and/or financial gain has to be the worst frame of mind to go into any musical project. We did it because subconsciously we needed an outlet, I guess. Everything we had experienced in life led to all of us knowing each other and creating something no one else can say is theirs.”
JJ & The Rogues will release Sweet Talker on Tuesday, Apr. 1.
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