By Melissa Fossum
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Perched on a stool at a local watering hole a few weeks back, sitting with a female acquaintance, we're discussing the state of local music when the conversation inevitably turns to Bleed American, the much-hyped, much-anticipated album from Jimmy Eat World.
My companion, a twentyish college grad newly smitten with indie rock, goes on for a good five minutes lavishing praise on Jimmy Adkins, the band's 25-year-old singer-songwriter.
"Jim Adkins," she coos, finally, "is a genius."
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It would've been easy to dismiss her as just another acolyte bowing at the altar of The Next Big Thing. But taken aback by the audacity of the statement -- and being a sneering churl by nature -- I let loose.
Now, having listened to Bleed American, it's clear I was wrong.
That's not to say Adkins is a wunderkind in the Welles/Wilson/Spector mold, but, rather, a musical auteur along the lines of John Fogerty or Ric Ocasek: that rare talent who's capable of striking the tricky balance between cultivating mass appeal and maintaining artistic integrity -- while making it appear that little effort was spent doing either.
The birth of Bleed American was a fairly adventurous one. After a difficult two-album turn with Capitol Records, Jimmy Eat World decided to strike out on its own in 2000, parting ways with its label and management, and mortgaging its financial future to fund the recording of the album themselves. The industry buzz on the still-in-the-works record (produced by longtime collaborator Mark Trombino) was so strong that it invited the interest of the powerful G.A.S. agency (the firm that shepherds the careers of the Beastie Boys and Beck) and eventually DreamWorks Records. Sold-out European tours with Weezer, American festival jaunts with Blink 182, late-night TV talk show appearances and glowing reviews in glossy national mags would come in rapid succession.
Here in the Valley, the album, set to hit stores this week, is being greeted with an unprecedented amount of excitement. Already the most anticipated local release in recent memory -- pending sales -- it may well surpass the Gin Blossoms' New Miserable Experienceas the most successful.
The group -- Adkins, guitarist Tom Linton, bassist Rick Burch and drummer Zach Lind -- has been pleased with its newfound "It Band" status, if somewhat wary of the potential traps such a position holds. For his part, Adkins has insisted repeatedly to anyone who would listen that Jimmy Eat World "is just a rock 'n' roll band," though the group's zealous online community of fans (found at www.jimmyeatworld.net) and the hordes of pimply-faced teens that turn up at JEW's sold-out shows would probably rate the band closer to an all-consuming passion (if not a way of life) than a humble musical outfit.
Given such lofty expectations, it's easy to see why Adkins is apprehensive. He needn't worry, though, as Bleed Americanlives up to all the promise.
Kicking things off is the song "Bleed American." It's a deceptive choice for the opener and title track, inasmuch as it's the least representative song of the album. (The use of the cut as the first single is a bit more logical. Given the current state of modern rock radio, the band was obliged to offer its most strident and quintessential "alt-rock" track as an entree to the commercial airwaves.)
Striking an incisive tone, Adkins attempts a vaguely sociopolitical statement about modern-day America. Allusions to "the picket line or the parade" are designed to point out the vast paradoxes and cruel dichotomy of life in the U.S. -- a worldview informed, no doubt, by the band's extensive international touring. And like William Eggelston's cover photo, Adkins is trying to get past the familiar façade -- the America of loving cups and Lucky Strikes -- and down to the harsh reality beneath the pallid surface.
Although "Bleed American" might've been intended as a sort of topical diatribe against the inequities of the not-so-good-old USA, it works more effectively as a personal manifesto. The angular, jutting wall of guitars combines with frenzied drumming to create an atmosphere of disjointed tension. In fact, the song's jittery, wild-eyed quality makes it play like a panic attack set to music.
The lyrics ("I'm not crazy because I take the right pills every day") also hint at a far more personal turmoil at its core. By the time the track reaches its coda and Adkins lets out with a soul-searing howl, listeners will feel as though they've been witness to an exorcism. It's an emotional purge that seems to clear the deck for the more focused material that follows.
The next track, "A Praise Chorus," takes a sharp turn toward the hooky, employing a clever vocal stutter step that hasn't ch-ch-ch-changed since David Bowie did the same nearly a quarter-century ago. More significantly, the song signals a pivotal turn in the band's direction and the moment where the truth of the record begins to reveal itself.