Jack O’ The Clock – Leaving California (2021)

Jack O' The Clock - Leaving California (2021)
Artist: Jack O’ The Clock
Album: Leaving California
Genre: Prog Folk
Label: Cuneiform Records
Year Of Release: 2021
Quality: FLAC (tracks+.cue)

Tracklist:
1. Jubilation (2:50)
2. You Let Me Down (3:32)
3. The Butcher (8:40)
4. A Quarter-Page Ad (3:17)
5. Leaving California (6:57)
6. Fascination (8:14)
7. Narrow Gate (11:50)

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Personnel:
– Damon Waitkus / vocals, acoustic & electric guitars, mandolin, keyboards, hammer dulcimer
– Emily Packard / violin
– Jason Hoopes / bass
– Jordan Glenn / drums
– Thea Kelly / vocals

With:
– Ivor Holloway / clarinet (3), saxophones (7)
– Josh Packard / cello (4)
– Myles Boisen / pedal steel (5)

On the occasion of the 2019 live album Witness, Jack O’ The Clock’s leading figure, composer/multi-instrumentalist Damon Waitkus, said that the album would be the last of the band’s long-running quintet line-up. I, like many Jack O’ The Clock fans, imagined that the band would undergo a complete transformation by the next studio album but in fact only one person is missing. Wind player Kate McLoughlin has moved to the east coast of the US, making it impossible to work with the rest of the band, who live in California. Waitkus is still joined by the band’s phenomenal rhythm section of Jason Hoopes (bass guitar) and Jordan Glenn (drums) and violinist Emily Packard (who is also Waitkus’ partner). Leaving California also features guest appearances from wind player Ivor Holloway, cellist Josh Packard (Emily’s brother) and pedal steel guitarist Myles Boisen. Vocalist Thea Kelley, who has previously appeared on Jack O’ The Clock albums, has also officially joined the band.

Ironically, the band may be facing further changes in the near future. McLoughlin was forced to leave the band after moving to another part of the US, and now Waitkus and Packard have also moved to Vermont on the east coast. This turn of events also gave the album the name Leaving California. So it is possible that McLoughlin will return to the band, but it may be that Hoopes and Glenn, who have stayed in California, will not be included on the next album, which the ever-working Waitkus has already begun to compose.

Although Leaving California takes its name from the couple’s move away from California, most of the material on the album was actually composed years earlier and Waitkus has also unearthed a composition dating back to 2000. Part of the age of the material is explained simply by the fact that much of the music on Jack O’ The Clock is composed, art music-style, on sheet music and then presented almost ready-made to the rest of the band by Waitkus. Waitkus therefore composes a considerable amount of music and he culls from his reserves the appropriate pieces for each album. The result of this method of working is that sometimes compositions that are perfectly valid in themselves are left waiting for years for the right album to be released.

Jack O’ The Clock’s music has always balanced somewhere between very complex avant-prog and more straightforward Americana-inspired folk tunes. This time around, the folk side is more in the forefront and while the music is still quite complex at times, it is on average much more accessible than before. Listening to Leaving California, instead of Henry Cow, one is more often reminded of folk-rock legend Fairport Convention. Fairport Convention in stereoids, but still.

On the instrumentation level, the most significant difference of course comes from the absence of the bassoon. McLoughlin’s bassoon is missed at times (I’m a big fan of the instrument in a rock context), but Packard’s increased violin parts make up for it, as do Holloway’s clarinet and saxophones on a few tracks.

Another new twist to the music is that Leaving Californian for the first time ever brings a female vocalist to the forefront. Although I personally like Damon Waitkus’ vocals, her nasal singing voice has been the band’s most obvious weakness. By the standards of the albums as a whole, her voice becomes a little lacking. On Leaving California, the situation is nicely compensated by Thea Kelley. Kelley sings backing vocals on several tracks, but happily shares lead vocals with Waitkus on a few compositions and even gets to sing one track all by herself.

The album opener ”Jubilation” introduces the band’s new, slightly more straightforward, style. Opening with a great acoustic guitar, the song even reminds us of The Who for a moment when the rhythm section rumbles in. ”Jubilation” picks up and slows down its tempo and again shows how tight and skilled the rhythm section is. Waitkus’ electric guitar crackles more aggressively than you’re used to in the band’s music. But it’s Hoopes’ panther-like growling bass and Glenn’s electric and unpredictable drumming that make the biggest impression. The snappy song is over in less than three minutes.

The next track ”You Let Me Down” brings Packard’s playful violin and Waitkus’ mandolin to the forefront and the melodic track has a very catchy feel to it. Despite its rather dark lyrics, the song bubbles with joy and captures the spirit of Leaving Californian in general: the atmosphere is lighter and brighter than on previous albums. Still, even in the most light-hearted passages, there seems to be a dark shadow lurking somewhere in the background. In Jack O’ The Clock’s world, all is never entirely well.

The third track on the album, ”The Butcher”, delivers the band’s typical complexity and colourful palette of sounds. The track starts with a jerky, slightly funky groove, over which Waitkus’ baritone electric guitar strangely strums. Holloway’s clarinet tastefully fills the gap left by McLoughlin’s bassoon, and Packard’s violin wails atonally in the deep background. The rubbery bouncing and bubbling bass riff and the fierce violin fighting against it reminds me of Gentle Giant. The track has also a really tasty instrumental interlude with a jazzy, old-fashioned feel.

”The Butcher” features Thea Kelly as lead vocalist. Kelley handles the vocals of the song on her own right up until the finale where Waitkus comes in effectively. Kelley brings not only a nice change to Waitkus’ voice but also a charming theatricality that creates an interesting contrast to the downright absurd realism of the lyrics. The lyrics of ”The Butcher” describe in a factual style the various stages of the hunt (killing, skinning, taking the carcass to the butcher). Quite a rare subject for a prog song! Towards the end, the lyrics become more enigmatic, with Abraham of the Bible and his knife entering the picture.

”The Butcher” is a stunning composition and one of the band’s finest songs.

”The Butcher” is followed by the chamber music-like ”A Quarter-Page Ad”, built mainly on strings and Kelley’s solo vocals, which is a clear reminder of Waitkus’ classical music training.

The title track is a melancholically nostalgic and melodic song with Waitkus singing perhaps better than ever before. Packard also shines in his violin parts.

The last two tracks on the album, ”Fascination”, and the almost 12 minute closing track, ”Narrow Gate” have so far remained a little distant for me. The ethereally floating ”Fascination” is pleasant in itself, but feels kind of filler track (and at eight minutes it is overlong).

’Narrow Gate’, on the other hand, like ’The Butcher’, reaches for the band’s more complex counterpoint style. The song is full of tasty individual moments such as Waitkus’ racing piccolo guitar and screeching dulcimer, a few surprisingly crunchy electric guitar riffs and a handsome but all too brief saxophone solo by Holloway. Despite the delightful individual moments, and the fact that the song does progress with a natural feel, the whole somehow falls short of the sum of its parts. However, I am optimistic that ”Narrow Gate” will unfold for me with further listens.

At 45 minutes, Leaving California is the band’s shortest record to date (if you exclude the cover album Outsider Songs, which is only half an hour long), which, combined with the ”lighter” music, gives a slight impression of an interlude. Despite its overall high quality, Leaving California does not reach the loftiest top of Jack O’ The Clock’s catalogue. In fact, it is only somewhere in the middle. However, this is by no means a poor performance when you consider that the band’s career of eight studio albums and one live album does not include a single miss. With Leaving California, Jack O’ The Clock easily maintains its place as the most interesting modern prog band of the moment.
by JANNE YLIRUUSI

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