MUSIC REVIEW: JEN GLOECKNER
This is perhaps less a review and more an overview of three albums by Iowa based artist JEN GLOECKNER, covering Miles Away (2003), Mouth of Mars (2010), and Vine (2017).
This woman's work is a perfect example of how a uniformly unique and excellent sequence of albums can get missed by the wider listening public.
Up until now, that included me. Consider me now a convert.
Jen lives in the small Mississippi River town of Dubuque, population creeping towards 58,000, central to what is known as the Tri-State region.
Dubuque is a town based around early lead mining and timber industries. It is a college town, and seems to have a long tradition of religious observance.
It also seems to boast a decent spread of talented musicians.
Jen is a self-taught musician, starting on guitar (left handed), adding piano and production skills to her singular voice and writing talent.
2003 saw the recording of the 'MILES AWAY' album. The stellar production values would belie the fact that this is a home recording. When the production becomes invisible, you know someone is doing the exact right thing for the material.
Over fifteen tracks, Jen sets her songs in a variety of arrangements, varying from simple guitar and voice, to expanded band line-up. Special embellishments from Cellist Kameron Cole and Flautist Jen Wiater add a wonderful touch to the sympathetic playing heard throughout.
With recording, production, and mixing tasks shared by Jen and Laird Scott, the overall impression of what is achieved here makes a mockery of big budget recordings. This is all soul, no bling. Fifteen tracks, no filler.
If I had to suggest a touchstone for this set, perhaps imagine Stevie Nicks doing a stripped-down album with a producer who enforces the 'no over-singing' rule, and the 'only add what the lyric needs' understanding of arrangements.
This is an interesting perspective with which to approach the album.
But on the song 'NOTHING PERSONAL', over the deep and resonate bass line, Jen sings:
I always follow the rabbit, nothing personal, just habit.
That indeed is what she does on the next album, following the rabbit deep into the burrow.......
Released in 2010, and again, recorded in what is now known as Jen's Orange Room, 'MOUTH OF MARS' finds the artist not only descending the rabbit hole, but shooting into space, tripping across the dance floor, and generally asking, "I wonder what it would sound like if....????"
The only continuity from the earlier set is the voice, but even that varies from track to track. It is the consistency of the intonation and phrasing choices that provide the link.
When it comes to arrangements, some very bold decisions are being made. Some tracks are more simply done, but still featuring odd sounds and treatments.
Others are epic in scope. Some mix the two approaches. We hear grunge guitar, fuzz bass, falsetto, electronica, hushed percussion, thrashing percussion, electric violin, backward tapes, recitation, and washes of just plain weird stuff.
Flashes of psychedelia, trippy beats, grunge, found sounds, treatments: it's all here.
But in amongst this changing soundscape, there are a few discernible backwards glances.
'LET ME HAUNT YOU' with just strummed guitar, vocal and cello would sit comfortably on the first album.
Moreover, if the first album was to include a track that could be the portent of the second album, 'SLEEP TO DREAM' would do the trick.
For the listener who relishes a multi layered, ever changing work, this is hard to beat. Again, a healthy roster of fifteen tracks, no two alike, not one wasted.
It does raise the question however, when you have been 'out there' and maybe even a bit further, where do you go next?
After a seven-year wait, we have the answer, with the release of the 2017 album 'VINE’.
At this point we pause to appreciate the beauty and mystery staring at us from the album portrait.
Now breathe out.
I make this point because beautiful and mysterious could almost be the compass points guiding this album. Eleven tracks this time, just under forty minutes.
The sonic palette draws from the sparseness of the first album, paired with the lessons learnt with the unbridled experimentation of the second.
- VINE - the obvious link with the first album: hushed, meditative, instantly engaging. A song of quiet restraint in romantic rejection, "I'm alright without your love". The Firefly motif in the lyric carries over into the next track, an instrumental.
- FIREFLY (WAR DANCE)- being segued with the album opener, this is an ever-rising storm-fest. Perhaps the mini soundtrack to a yet to be filmed Icelandic epic. You pick your own scenario - if it is dark and dramatic you want, this is your slice of tempest.
In HiFi terms, if this does not energise your room, your system is found wanting. Sorry.
- BREATHE - over a stuttering sequencer figure, with programmed bass (very deep) and percussion, washes of breathy backing vocal and that disciplined and poised main vocal. Beautiful and rather twitchy. Guitarist Shawn Healy launches some cat-scaring lines of pure guitar filth. Divine.
- GINGER ALE - for a first-time listener, this is one of the more ear ready offerings. That is not to say the track does not have layers of sonic depth, but it is the one a radio station would or could select, but only a very cool station.
- THE LAST THOUGHT - O.K., instant point of reference, ENYA before she became locked into her ' formula', i.e. first and second albums only. What sounds like a KOTO but is more likely a dulcimer weaves a lovely counter melody over the tune.
- BLOWING THROUGH - imagine Beth Gibbons transported back in time to be the fourth Andrews Sister, and 'Nice' Phil Spector producing This is a classically lush pop tune that would sit comfortably in any decade from the fifties on. Fluttering flute and brushed snare complete the retro feel.
- COUNTING SHEEP - a perfect slice of dream pop, (pun intended) played and sung straight down the line. I could also imagine Roy Orbison or k.d.lang taking a pass at this, and I can practically anticipate how David Lynch would deploy it in a movie.
- PRAYERS - a simple lyric sung over a wall of treated keys and guitars. Very tasty. Again, if you listen more deeply into the mix, there is a lot going here. Particularly love the deep bass line in the playout."When a man walks on the moon, does he still say his prayers?" Jen ponders.
- COLORS - yes, I know, it's how the Yanks spell it, get over it! The sort of rolling bass line that Peter Gabriel favours, touches of flute, Jen singing in the lower range of her register, rising in the hook. This 'rise' may sound edgy on a lesser system. As a tune, it's gone almost before you can get a handle on it.
- ROW WITH THE FLOW - If there was ever any doubt that the EVERLY BROTHERS have a continuing influence on the thoughtful adult music of today, this is Exhibit One.
Jen manages to be both Phil and Don, with guest vocalist Henry Padovani (founding guitarist in The Police) doing some chest-deep vocal lines, and John Ashton (Psychedelic Furs) adding some interesting guitar textures. This is a lilting cheek-to-cheek slow-dance contender. A definite baby-maker.
- SOLD - the short album closer, for me this is the only one I have a problem with. Jen pens interesting and literate lyrics, but with this mix, they are barely discernible. A line here, a line there, that's all I can make out.
Mixing duties shared by Brian McTear and Matt Poirier at Miner Street Recordings in Philadelphia, mastering courtesy of Paul Hammond at 'The Spot'.
Over the course of these three albums, Jen shows conclusively that she has an enormous and singular talent. Her influences are prime sources, but it is how individually she performs, arranges, and records her music that makes her stand out from her peers.
If you were to remove the vocal tracks from the three albums, you would swear each one was by a different artist, or in the case of "MOUTH OF MARS" a different group.
The rate of artistic development, even spread over many years, is quite striking. Factor in that these are primarily home recordings, the awe magnifies.
The three albums are available from her website, and VINE is currently available as record and cd. Download options are also available for those of that persuasion.
For a small taste of the 'VINE' album, here's the opening two tracks. Enjoy.
For more information visit jengloeckner.com
A walking encyclopedia of music, David's broad music knowledge is a valued member to the team. Without music, there would be no HiFi. Look out for his words on current, past and future music, as well as album reviews.
Posted in: Music
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