Aside from the back-story/near-legend of how Jackson Scott‘s album came to be (his Soundcloud track, “That Awful Sound,” was named Best New Track by Pitchfork in February; on Tuesday his debut LP, Melbourne will be released by Fat Possum), the overriding question is…
Well, what is the question? It’s kind of, what’s going on here, on Melbourne‘s 12 tracks? Is Scott, a UNCA dropout and former-ish Sin Kitty member (that band is currently on hiatus), doing something brilliant?
If so, he’s deconstructing pop songs — all that’s hooky and catchy and bright — and reinventing those song structures as stripped and thick and dark.
Or, is this all an experiment that produced a song cycle interesting in its process but not yet full-realized?
Melbourne opens with “Only Eternal,” an instrumental noise track that straddles a line between atmospheric and industrial. And, while both atmospheric and industrial sounds return, frequently, throughout the album, the collection is neither. It’s not airy or organic, nor is it mechanical or clanking or driving. It’s also not sunny or laid back, as the title might suggest. Though there is a clever wink in the album’s name — in the way Arthur Phillips’ 2002 novel, Prague, follows a group of ex-Pats in gloomy Budapest as they dream about luminous Prague.
“Evie” is dreamy and dark and layered with distortion — a sort of acoustic Einstürzende Neubauten-meets-late John Lennon. Atonal notes and bare space are not quite menacing, but seem haunted by something airless and bleak. Abandon shopping malls or Detroit’s Zombieland.
Scott often returns to pitch modulation, doubling his own vocal, singing off-kilter verses that sound child-like at one turn and insouciant at the next. Even the more-melodic “Sandy” is, in Scott’s vision, askew. Press for the album describes the sound as “channeling kraut, punk, surf and pop as one psych rock solvent.” But the psychedelic part is a kaleidoscope left out in the rain. The beat is an easy drop and sway — it feels lazy but also right. The whole of “Sandy” is both comfortable and discomfiting, a balance Jackson masters instinctually. As such, his songs are sonic sculptures of disheveled pop. Prettiness slashed with chagrin.
Scott’s influences are not immediately apparent, though there are hints of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. The almost-lush “Together Forever” is Mazzy Star-esque: a sweet, slow crush of sound over which pouty lyrics float. And almost on the opposite end of Scott’s scale is the jangly, garage-y “Any Way,” which references 60s pop, only without the requisite snap. Instead, it devolves into off-key dissonance. It’s a catchy song, tweaked so the listener’s ear is never quite allowed to latch onto a hook.
Which is not a bad thing. There’s no rule that music has to be easily digestible. And there’s something admirable about Scott’s concept and possibly very personal bedroom recording project that caught the attention of the often-jaded music industry. That, and even though some songs (like “Tomorrow,” with its twitchy anxiousness) are not warm and fuzzy, others are, if not readily friendly, then guardedly charismatic.
“That Awful Sound,” the song that started it all, would work well in a coming-of-age film soundtrack. Something with Ellen Page. It’s the un-anthemic anthem. And the jangly, ever-so-slighly-sunny “In the Sun” reminds of early Bright Eyes. Separate from the rest of the collection, it would be folky. But even there, Scott incises the the awkwardly cute trajectory with an edgy backward track.