By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
By Derek Askey
On the band's earlier releases, Static Prevails and, to a lesser extent, Clarity, there were moments when JEW seemed to be looking over its shoulder at a not-so-distant musical past. At times the songs were encumbered by this very sense of personal history, a noble (if impractical) desire to remain true to some idealized hard-core, emo-core or indie ethic. Nearly a decade into its career, though, the band has paid off its old debts, broken any lingering allegiance it might've felt and instead decided to embrace "pop" -- both in terms of form and function -- with a wholehearted abandon.
As has been the case with most of rock's youthful practitioners, JEW's songs, up until now, have been inclined only to look toward the future. But age and experience have given the band's work a newfound sense of nostalgia. By the time "Praise" reaches its climax with Adkins' pleas of "Sing me something that I know," leading into a choral cop of Tommy James' (or more likely Joan Jett's) version of "Crimson and Clover," sung by Davey Von Bohlen of the Promise Ring, it's obvious that the band has discovered a fresh muse.
Critics and naysayers in the post-Nirvana era have tried to dismiss, savage and ultimately bury the notion that rock 'n' roll has the unique ability -- above all other forms of music -- to serve as a panacea for the problems and pains of youth. In recent years, that belief has had to withstand the white-hot glare of hip-hop, electronica, DJ culture, even unsettling hybrids like rap-rock. Yet the thematic undercurrent of Bleed American proves that spirit remains alive and well.
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In a way, "A Praise Chorus" shares an unlikely kinship with the work of Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter. Hunter, who's made a career of penning laddish tales of rock 'n' roll nostalgia ("Saturday Gigs," "All the Way From Memphis," "Roll Away the Stone"), exhibited a fondness early on for the comfort and deliverance found in the familiar strains of an old song -- a tradition that Adkins continues in this track.
Over Von Bohlen's homage to "Crimson," Adkins admits to his own "rock 'n' roll fantasy" and begs for someone to "kick start my rock 'n' roll heart." Clichés, to be sure, but in the hands of these young dudes they're both unexpected and effective -- an affirmation that for all the premature reports of its demise, the old Mott-esque view of rock 'n' roll as saving grace has continued to thrive among Gen X and Yers as well.
Next is "The Middle," an electro-New Wave, hey-little-girl-it's-gonna-work-out anthem, which -- like most of the other old-school nuggets included here -- is haunted by the specter of '70s and '80s California power pop.
And while it's a safe bet that Adkins and Company's CD collections don't include anything by the 20/20, Rubinoos or the Beat, they've still managed to craft a collection of songs that falls squarely in the tradition of Poptopia! and Yellow Pills flag wavers. How the frequently dogmatic citizens of the indie nation will react to an album that owes more to Ian Gomm than Ian Mackaye is a calculated risk.
It's no coincidence, then, that the band quickly sequences "Sweetness" next. The most classic JEW-sounding cut on the record, the tune utilizes the same thrust-and-parry rhythms and propulsive chorus that made "Lucky Denver Mint" a minor hit and fan favorite.
Those more enamored of the band's introspective side will respond favorably to a quartet of mid-to-slower-tempo album cuts. Several of these -- specifically "Hear You Me" and "My Sundown" -- were originally penned for Adkins' orch-pop side project Go Big Casino. Suitably hushed and more restrained than JEW's previous forays into similar territory, they also mark a development in Adkins' ability to create complex emotional dilemmas, narratives that go beyond the wistful melancholy of schoolboy crushes and teen heartbreak.
The first, "Your House," works well enough in this regard, though Adkins' singing comes off as slightly twee. Still, Trombino's subtle production touches -- stealthlike organ, emotion punctuating percussion -- save the song from veering into the realm of puppy-dog pap.
The band is more effective at translating the genuinely sanguine sentiment of "Hear You Me." The song -- part remorse poem and part eulogy for a dead love affair -- is a remarkable bit of craftsmanship. Adkins' burnished vocals navigate the tune, as a bedrock of acoustic guitar dances with a lilting countermelody. Elsewhere, tinkling piano fills and an organ aping the settling of a flügelhorn fades beautifully into the lachrymose din of Rachel Haden's angelic croon.
As a writer, Adkins' motives don't seem all that far removed from Elvis Costello's famous line about "revenge and guilt." JEW covers the latter admirably with "Hear" before tackling the former on the album's standout, "Get It Faster."
Opening with a minute's worth of ominous shudders and thuds, the cut eventually settles into a ticking time-bomb groove, which quickly explodes into a chorus of such Promethean depth and grandeur that it would send even the most dedicated power chord progeny running for cover.