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Nathan Partain’s Jaywalker: Tight, finely-tuned Southern rock with a couple surprises up its sleeve

July 24, 2015

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I rarely go out of my way to comment on the religiosity or lack thereof espoused in the lyrics of the bands I cover here on Independent Clauses. While I’m not quite as agnostic as Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman on whether “Christian music” can exist, I focus pretty heavily on the music at IC. (This decision in and of itself points toward my answer on the question; a deeper philosophical treatise on this issue will have to wait.)

However, it’s almost not possible to talk about Nathan Partain‘s Jaywalker without mentioning that these Southern-rock/folk-oriented tunes are meant to be sung in churches. Partain’s melodic and arranging chops accent but never hinder the ability of these songs to be easily sung by congregations (or people in cars, or walking down the street, etc.).

“I Have Found a Hidden Fountain” opens the record with squalling electric guitar feedback before launching into a full-band Southern-rock vibe, complete with screamin’ organ. After the intro, the band tones it down to feature the dual vocals: Partain’s yearning tenor up front and female vocals supporting with harmonies and tasteful wordless counterpoint. The band doesn’t totally drop out–they merely make way for the vocals to take center stage. This allows the tune to feel tight and real while still leaving the vocal melody easily heard, a trend that continues throughout the album. They get soulful in an instrumental solo section, drop down the volume for dramatic effect, then ramp back up to full weight to close out the tune.

Partain rolls out more Southern rock vibes in follow-up “It’s God Who Saves,” unveiling a nicely arpeggiated lead guitar line on top of more tight band interplay. He also lets his voice get a bit ragged in points, giving the performance a grit that wasn’t present in the more straightforward opener. Even though there’s not as much guitar action in this one, this is a bit more wide-open full-band performance. Partain and co. max out the rock grit with the innocuously-titled “Love is a Gift,” which contains a thunderous guitar riff and roaring vocals in the chorus. (As a result, this is the song that least feels like a congregational possibility.) If you love a bass-heavy Southern rock tune, you should skip straight to this one.

Moving toward the folkier end of the spectrum are tunes like “A Son of God” and “In Tenderness He Sought Me”; these dial back the electric firepower and lean heavily on the polished, evocative vocal melodies. The former includes swinging syncopation that makes it straight-up fun to sing; the latter gives Sarah Partain a verse, and her gentle, affectionate alto softens the already-sweet tone of the tune. “Hold Thou My Hand” is a stark, vulnerable piano ballad whose lyrics and melodies helped develop a catch in my throat by the end.

The most intriguing two songs on the record transcend tunes identifiable by genre labels: “Jesus Is Mine” and “He Was Wounded” invert generic stereotypes to create unique tunes. “Jesus Is Mine” opens with heavy-handed piano whacks and insistent bass thump, then splays out into a vaguely minor-key jam: the piano goes all saloon, Partain distorts his “oh-oh” vocals in the verse breaks, and the guitar wails in engaging ways. It’s not your average Southern-rock jam. Ominous isn’t the right word for a worship song, but whoa. “He Was Wounded” uses organ and delicate clean electric guitar to open in an almost ambient drone; there’s a spacious, elegant, cathedral-esque glamour to the tune that doesn’t draw its strength only from the gentle reverb. It’s quiet and tense without being a solo acoustic performance, something that isn’t so common in folk (with the strong exception of the Barr Brothers).

Jaywalker is a powerful album of Southern rock and acoustic-folk tunes that slots nicely next to bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Megafaun, and Jason Isbell. Because of its roots, you can sing along every single tune (a highlight in my eyes!). On top of that, the arrangements are tight and finely calibrated to make the songs work right. I’ve been listening to it for weeks and haven’t gotten tired yet. Highly recommended.

Blues, birds and a collaboration

October 24, 2012

The Local Strangers play bluesy, soulful swagger with a sassy, attitude-filled female vocalist. I’m impressed that something this swampy and Southern came out of Seattle.

IC indie-rock faves I Used to Be a Sparrow released an acoustic version of “Life Is Good” off their album Luke. The stripped-down version really plays up the vocal melodies, which are excellent.

I love Sleeping at Last and Jon Foreman, so I was thrilled to hear recently that they are working together on songs.

Here it is: the most exciting album of the year.

November 28, 2011

Once in a blue moon I will come across a opening track so arresting that I start telling people about the album before I’ve even heard the whole first song. The Collection, the nom de plume of songwriter David Wimbish, has put out just such a song in “Dirt”: before the song ended, I was Facebooking my Jon Foreman-loving friend to say I’d found him a new favorite band. This ultimately turned out to be untrue: Foreman doesn’t ever end up yelling at the top of his lungs over his acoustic-led tunes, as Wimbish does in the electrifying “Lazarus” and powerful “Leper.” But it’s “Dirt” that glued me to this album.

“Dirt” is a perfect opener not because it’s flawless, but because it encapsulates everything I want to say about the Collection’s self-titled EP in a single unit. The first sound in the song is a poignant banjo melody, and the second is Wimbish’s gentle tenor vocals. The banjo underscores the fact that this is alt-folk of the Sufjan/Freelance Whales variety, but the sobriety of the melody evokes the gravitas of Damien Rice. The horns, strings and everything else that compose the EP’s extravagant arrangements show up later in the tune.

Wimbish’s pleasant, evocative vocals are a bit of a red herring, as he can use his voice in a number of different ways: quiet singing, falsetto, loud singing, full-bodied roaring, all-out screaming. This diversity of vocals is necessary due to the variety of emotions that Wimbish displays throughout the incredible 7-song EP: calm confidence, fear, desperation, enthusiasm, hope. Most of Wimbish’s songs form a lyrical arc, starting in one emotion and ending in another; this lets the music and lyrics unfold in a symbiotic relationship that creates incredibly satisfying tunes and enables the huge sweeps in emotion to be natural instead of forced.

But Wimbish isn’t just a brilliant lyricist: he also played literally every instrument (except a couple guest spots in “Jericho”) on this album, marking him an instrumental virtuoso that can play piano, horns, accordion, strings, flute, drums, auxiliary percussion and all manner of stringed strummers and pluckers. That’s absolutely incredible.

His melody and songwriting skills are top-shelf as well. “Stones” is a chipper tune that puts horns and glockenspiel to charming use, while the unusual strings of “Fever” create a brilliant foundation for a melody. “Jericho” lets a beautiful piano elegy lead the tune, while the aforementioned “Lazarus” has more adrenaline in its folky soul than I do most days. The raw emotional power of “Leper” is absolutely stunning. (Wimbish has ripped a page from the Page France book in naming all his tunes single words.)

As I alluded to earlier, it’s not perfect. It’s easily the most exciting display of raw songwriting talent that I’ve heard this year, but it still needs refining. Wimbish is prone to big, slab-like string-and-horn arrangements; think of the over-arching orchestra on Coldplay’s track “Viva La Vida” and you’ll get why “Dirt” isn’t my song of the year. He also has a tendency to over-arrange; “Dirt” could have stood with far less instruments, because the melody and lyrics are so incredibly powerful. Wimbish has a problem that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in ten years of reviewing: his lyrics and melodies are so good that they actually ask for less things happening than more. A stripped-down version of this EP would be just as good, if not better, than this full-out version. And you’ve just read how I’ve been gushing about the full-out version.

This is the most exciting album I’ve heard all year, and it’s almost December. If Wimbish keeps on this tack, his future music is going to be absolutely incredible. I’ve been listening to this for a month to make sure I’m not just blowing smoke, and I’m not. The Collection EP is a must-listen for everyone interested in folk, pop, singer/songwriter, and just good music. Sign me up on the “huge fan” list for The Collection.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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