After returning last year from a creative stint in Brooklyn, local singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Jon Reid—aka Jar-e—has been hard at work, writing and recording a new album, lending support to Angi West on her new release and, most recently, opening for Toubab Krewe at a spate of shows north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.
The promise that was evident on Jar-e’s previous offering, War Songs and The Muse, is paid in full on the band’s latest, Chicas Malas. The melodic and harmonic sensibilities that so vitally defined War Songs, the same attention to craft, the perennial Fender Rhodes, are all born again here in an even richer profusion.
Gone is the sampling that structured much of the former album. Now the tones are all recorded live: Be they drums, horns or strings, they be real. Even the pouring rain that opens “Ramparts,” the closing ballad on Chicas, is real—a storm recorded live as the band prepared to lay down the final track at a ramshackle shack outside Marshall.
One would never guess that these songs were committed in a makeshift studio set in a rented barn in the boondocks of Western North Carolina. But then, there is much about Chicas Malas that might surprise the curious listener.
You might be surprised to find that good pop music is not actually dead, but is still being intensely felt and energetically written, even in them thar hills that surround us, terrain so often associated with the roots of country and the string music that is such a deep part of our local and national heritage.
In light of the recent Xpress story that looked at roots versus indie music, I asked Reid about his roots, and what label he can ascribe to, if any.
“My roots are pop, hip-hop and jazz, in that order,” Reid says. “Most ‘roots’ music bores the hell out of me nowadays and I hate the ‘indie’ label. If I have to say what kind of music I play, I say soul.”
How does Reid define pop? “Pop music should be concise, well-crafted music that grabs your attention and doesn’t let it go,” he offers.
If that definition suffices, then Chicas Malas is definitely pop music of the highest order (if one dares to apply standards in our collapsing age). Most of the 10 songs clock under three-and-a-half minutes, with only three breaking four minutes. All of the songs follow definite forms, often riffing on the best of the big bang that was the previous century’s pop explosion. And yet, none of these songs are predictable: They grab and hold attention. Despite their tight adherence to form, there are curves and surprises awaiting the sensitive listener at just the right turns. From the driving familiar drum and tambourine intro on the opening “Feverbreak,” to the graceful arpeggiated horns that drive the chorus in “Leaf,” the listener is rewarded with rich new variations on timeworn spells.
And what does soul mean to Reid? “To me, soul is unabashedly heartfelt,” he says. “Passion and pain, love and sorrow expressed with as little filter and filler as humanly possible.”
No filter censors Reid’s passion in these songs, be they playful meditations, like the effervescent “Heyday,” with its driving rhythmic instrumental refrain, or “Casa Believe,” with its expressive choral shouts that augment a sequence of solos, or the doleful lamentations on “Ramparts,” a song that nods to Radiohead’s Thom York, but remains all Jar-e.
While there is no real reference herein to hip-hop stylings, an obvious influence on War Songs, the jazz root has been tapped in spades, thanks in no small part to the excellent cast of local talent. Whereas War Songs had no solos to speak of, Chicas Malas brims with them, though never to a fault.
“I like to approach solos from a jazz rather than a jam aesthetic,” the musician says. “I think ‘jam music’ is self-indulgent, that’s why most people need to be high to enjoy it. I look for solos to complement and extend the themes of the song.”
And now for the concept of Chicas Malas. “Bad girls set the world into play,” Reid explains. “That’s what this record is about. I’m looking at how women push me past myself. How they breed desire, love or jealousy inside of me, while always luring me onward.”
Here’s hoping bad girls never lose their allure for Jar-e, for if they had anything to do with this contribution to pop, I tip my hat to them, one and all.
David Connor Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Jar-e, with openers Habibigy (featuring Eleanor Underhill of the Barrel House Mamas) and afterparty from DJ Par-D.
what: CD release party
where: The Rocket Club, West Asheville
when: Saturday, Feb. 28 (9 p.m. $10. www.myspace.com/jare)