J-200 is an alt.country band from Chicago, where they are part of what their website calls "the city's white-hot Americana scene." The six-piece band takes its name from the large-bodied Gibson acoustic guitar favored by, among others, Emmylou Harris. Trip From Grace is their second disc on what appears to be their own label, Loose Booty Records. Theyre obviously hoping this will be their breakthrough disc. They recorded it in Austin with a name producer and theyve given it a nice, expensive-looking jewel case.
Alt.country (or Americana or No Depression) has been around for about ten years now and, while it hasnt transformed American pop music, it seems to have settled in for a long run. The movements progenitors, Uncle Tupelo, had an edge of discovery and freshness. But, as with all things in art that begin new and then become too clearly defined, alt.country can be restrictive. It has for many musicians and critics become more about the appearance of authenticity than about real music. Because of its semi-underground status, alt.country gives bands an aura of hipness and, at the same time, outlaw status. Its an image a band can wrap itself in.
J-200 is a group of capable players, but I think theyre trying this image on for size. The bands previous experience is described in their bio as "hardcore rockers," "DIY punk," and "avant-pop." Another former band is described as "country toughs." I was going to try to find out what that meant, but I decided the experience would be too dispiriting. I just cant imagine anyone in the band owning an album by Hank Williams or Merle Haggard.
If they do own records by any of the giants of country music, they havent listened to them carefully enough to internalize what they heard. Listening to most of Trip From Grace reminded me of Sonny Boy Williamsons description of his experience with the Yardbirds, "Those British boys want to play the blues real bad. And thats how they play them."
Vocalist Renee A. Girons strong voice reminds me of Natalie Merchants. She also has Merchants unfortunate tendency to sing from her throat on occasion. Shes set at full throttle throughout most of Trip From Grace, but she may not be able to help that -- everyone in the band seems to have his amp cranked to ten. The best tunes are the quietest -- "Caste Away," "If I Slip," and "Slowly" -- because Giron sings with less effort and she gets to express an emotion other than fatigue from trying to stay out of the bands way.
The biggest problem with the disc, aside from the bands sledgehammer approach, is that the songs arent really arranged. The guitarists play in unison instead of reacting to each other, providing harmonic or rhythmic counterpoint. They also seem to use the same tone settings for every tune. A wall of trebly, jangly guitars comes at you for most of the discs 34 minutes. Halfway through it I felt punch drunk. Producer Mark Hallman has worked as a recording engineer or producer with a number of artists, including Carole King, Iain Matthews, and Ani DiFranco. His contributions to Eliza Gilkysons Lost and Found are among that discs high points. Maybe he was giving the band the sound they wanted. He should have tried harder to talk them out of it.
Whats so frustrating about Trip From Grace is that it does contain some glimmers of promise. "Slowly," the tune that closes the disc is uncharacteristically subtle. Giron strums an acoustic guitar and sings a beautifully controlled opening while guitarist Jacque Judy plays an occasional chord or arpeggio behind her. Steve Thomas joins them on the second verse, playing pedal steel. When Suzanne Ecklund begins singing harmony on verse three, you can hear how well her voice meshes with Girons and how unique this band could sound if the musicians would play in support of these two vocalists instead of over them.
There are other hints here that this band may have potential. Girons sassy vocal , and Steve Thomass slap-back guitar solo on "Broke," suggest that two members of the band, at least, have a feel for Western swing (unfortunately, the drummer doesnt). "Not Just Now" is a strong country-rock song that has the guitarists playing off each other for once. In fact, the songwriting on the disc shows real promise and a few of these tunes, properly arranged, might have come off more successfully. We dont need a song called "Big Guitars," however.
I suspect J-200 took a talent for writing perfectly good pop songs and tried to shoehorn it into an alt.country sound. They should have taken time to understand the roots of the music first. Listen to Uncle Tupelos version of the Carter Familys "No Depression in Heaven" (available on 89:93: An Anthology, an excellent new compilation on Sony/Legacy) and you wont doubt for a minute that they loved and respected that music. More important, they were able to take their love for country and folk music and combine it with their similar affection for punk rock and remain true to all.
Next time, J-200 ought to work on more than looking cool in cowboy boots.
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