By Jeff Moses
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It's late Friday evening. The reassuring suburban quiet of this south Tempe neighborhood is broken by the noise emanating from the garage at the end of the street. Yet it's not the shambolic strains of "garage rock," but an ornate, almost lush sound.
Inside, the space is sparsely decorated. There is no litter of beer bottles or cigarettes, none of the typical trappings associated with musicians, save for the clutter of amplifiers and cables on the floor. In the corner of the room, cradling a pearl-white guitar, is Jimmy Eat World front man Jim Adkins. The gazes of the other five musicians are squarely fixed in his direction, watching for cues, following his changes. It's a feeling-out process for this relatively large collective of players known as Go Big Casino. Described as Adkins' "orchestral pop" side project, the group is preparing for a pair of high-profile engagements this week.
As the guiding force behind Jimmy Eat World, Adkins has had little use for the "emo" tag that the band has long been saddled with. If anything, his work with Go Big Casino reflects much more transitory influences, chief among them his current listening tastes, which range from the Willie Nelson instrumental album Night & Day to the emotive word play of singer/songwriter Richard Buckner.
Both the diversity of the musicianship and the informality of Casino's setup tend to defy narrow genre classifications, but the flourishes of tasteful indie pop suggested here put the band's sound closer to that of Elephant 6 groups like Beulah and Elf Power than anything found on the Jade Tree label.
If Adkins' muse within the confines of Jimmy Eat World can sometimes border on the genteel (a style that prompted one critic to describe his lyrics as perfect "for making out with a loved one"), then his efforts on such Casino songs as "Hear You Me," "Two Serenades" and "Richmond Again" are buoyed by a deep sense of introspection, one that dives headlong into melancholy.
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the rehearsals -- and the project -- is the surprising range of Adkins' voice. Adkins sings in a gentle, burnished wail, and his vocals take on added depth, unencumbered by the taut electric guitars that usually serve as his sonic backdrop.
Go Big Casino was birthed in December when Adkins was asked by Modified owner and Half Visconte front man Scott Tennent to participate in an acoustic benefit show for the downtown performance venue. Instead of playing a set of Jimmy Eat World songs, Adkins seized the opportunity to "go orchestral," as he puts it, recruiting a talented cadre of friends and musicians -- among them current and former members of AM Radio Allstar, Red Shifter, Reuben's Accomplice, Seven Storey Mountain and others -- to bring his solo bedroom productions to fruition.
"I record all the time in my room, just messing around with various instruments, extraneous percussion and other things," says Adkins. "So I have all these songs that I never play out, because there's so many different things on them. I thought it would be fun to have that sort of element presented live. That's pretty much the premise behind the band."
An unreleased 10-song demo of Go Big Casino material -- Adkins plays all the instruments -- finds most of the arrangements fleshed out, if not completely honed. Yet there's something about the unspoken dynamic between musicians that adds weight to the material in a live setting.
Feted by layers of subtle instrumentation, the songs mutate from simple line drawings into a vast tableau of colors and images. The simple, countryish lilt of "Power" is augmented by the supple brushwork of drummer Shane Kennedy. Jeff Bufano's arresting lap slide forms a blissful union with the rich bass of Aaron M. Wendt on the elegiac "Carry You." But the suffusing elements in the Casino sound are the bells and keyboards provided by Ryan Kennedy. His versatile playing brings a level of melodic intimacy, offsetting the oblique lyrical ruminations of "My Sundown" and "To an Actress" with consistent aplomb.
This group will spend the next two days holed up here rehearsing. At various points, the remaining members of the combo -- cellist Theron Wall, vocalist Paige Stauffer, percussionist Bob Lundberg and organist (and Adkins' Jimmy Eat World mate) Tom Linton -- will all come in to practice their parts. Though the work is complex, and the preparations essential, a palpable air of communal glee hangs over the proceedings.
Enthused as he is about the project, Adkins is reluctant to characterize Go Big Casino as anything more than a pleasant distraction. He says his first commitment remains leading Jimmy Eat World. The group has been on a hiatus since returning from a European tour in October. Though the band has played the occasional local show, Adkins feels the time off was needed to recharge the group's creative batteries.
"We're just trying to focus on writing the next album, and we've given ourselves a pretty open window to get that done," he says.
That window is open, in part, because Jimmy Eat World left Capitol, its major-label home since 1995, in September, just six months after the release of its sophomore full-length, Clarity. While Adkins isn't especially bitter about the parting, the experience has shaped his views on how he wants to proceed with the next phase of the band's career.