Let's be clear: Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse is a mess. It's unruly. The songs are sloppy and brash. The band's loose sound and gnarled vocals make it sound like they are sneering at you. Basically, the Bitter Tears are a lot to take in.
But it's also a good record. Singer Alan Scalpone and company have put together an eccentric bunch of pop songs, and the band just won't sit still from song to song. They'll jump from country to rock to blues to thick layers of brass, sometimes in the same song. And the more absurdly they combine these different sound, the better the songs work.
"Slay the Heart of the Earth" feels like the band is working in knee-deep mud. Scalpone's deadpan delivery makes him sound jaded and lost as he relives days when he was younger and had more faith. As he spends the track working toward the title's goal, background singers Sierra and Esther Glover are like sirens goading him on. That ability to stage these songs is a strength throughout the record. The players build a world with their music and then inhabit it.
And even when the band steps back some from their theater-group feel, when they get out of the way and let the song do its thing, they still deliver some pretty great stuff. "Inbred Kings" may be the best song here, as Scalpone's harsh tale of power and ignorance is backed by a harrowingly spare folk-rock sound. The strum of the acoustic guitar sounds isolated and cold, and bursts of horns have to inject themselves into the song just to keep it alive.
On the best parts of Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse, it is hard not to think of Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery when you hear Scalpone sing. He's got a similar nasal snarl, and, like Lowery, isn't afraid to get absurd. But Scalpone isn't rehashing anyone else's sound. To hear him sing about the "soapbox rooster, with fury in his eyes" on "Stumper" is to hear a distinct voice. The more you listen to the album, the more Scalpone's initial sneer reveals itself to be a maniacal, shiny-eyed grin.
Unfortunately, he does veer away from his bullhorn presence on the the record's lesser moments. When the band tries to temper its strident sound, it seems to lose a little of its bite. So when, on the hushed acoustic number "Hamptons" or in the twang of "Starlings," the band is missing their unpredictable spit and fire. The louder stuff works because it catches you off guard. You feel the consequences of these songs, even as Scalpone's lyrics veer toward the absurd.
By the end of Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse, you might find yourself taking stock of all the places it took you, and having trouble keeping track. Which is not a bad excuse to go back and discover those places all over again.
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