From the name alone, you’d think Jackie-O Motherfucker would be a snot-nosed punk band or a sleazy boots-and-belt-buckles rock ‘n’ roll band. But the aggression that the name implies reflects not the macho posturing of those strains of music but the approach taken by Tom Greenwood and Jef Brown (and an ever-changing cast of collaborators). They ransack the history of American popular music, push it through a meat grinder and come up with the jarring, grisly, glittering and at times difficult compositions such as those on Fig. 5 and Liberation.
Jackie-O Motherfucker, which originally began as a two-piece in 1994, is a collective of musicians hailing from Portland, Oregon, Baltimore, and New York. Fig. 5 and Liberation were originally released on the Road Cone label in 2000 and 2001, respectively, and they have been picked up by ATP Recordings (an offshoot of the All Tomorrow’s Parties avant-garde music festivals) for their re-release, saving these records from being long out-of-print and thankfully from being forgotten.
Taken in tandem, Fig. 5 and Liberation showcase the extent of the musical palette the members of Jackie-O Motherfucker draw from in creating their expansive, experimental sound. At moments inaccessible, cerebral or even downright unlistenable, these textures as songs give way to glimmering melodies that insinuate themselves into the far corners of your brain. The songs range from atmospheric to compellingly immediate, sometimes within the span of a bar or two. Well before the mash-up craze, Jackie-O Motherfucker was plundering old 78s and reworking them into incredible textures to underpin the squalling instruments.
Each track dips from a different slice of Americana, and the songs quiver and explode around numerous motifs, from African-American spirituals (is that really “Amazing Grace”?) to down and dark guitar picking, to the shimmering cacophony of Art Ensemble of Chicago. Fig. 5 is a bit cold, sparse and fractured, and Liberation essentially picks up where its predecessor leaves off, with the anthemic post-rock feel becoming more fully realized.
The band’s sound is difficult to pin down. With all the atonal, scratching violins and out-of-tune God-only-knows-whats, it’s sometimes shocking when a song emerges from the dissonance, but it’s all the more intriguing because of it. Many tracks do not feature vocals, and those that do still maintain an instrumental feel. Fig. 5‘s “Beautiful September (We Are Going There),” which rolls along on a groove of slide guitar and twang-y bass, is a fine case in point.
Jackie-O Motherfucker, which has toured recently with such experimental mainstays as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Boredoms, and Sonic Youth, makes stunning use of tape loops to add further texture to the sound. The songs are insinuating and mesmerising, jarring yet hypnotic, atonal yet melodic, and all are perfect for dark rooms and rumination. This is music that forces you to take notice to figure out where the sounds are coming from, music that makes you think and remember why you fell in love with experimental sounds to begin with. What place will you go next?