Novi Split is going through the great reconsideration right now. Between Spare Songs, Keep Moving, Disk 2 and If Not This, Then What, David J has spent the last three months publicizing, re-publicizing, and in some cases unearthing everything that his singer/songwriter project has done. In case you the missed the incredible work of David J over the last decade, he’s making himself easy to find now.
And that’s good, because these three releases show an impressive songwriter with a golden voice and a crisp, earnest singer/songwriter style. Let’s start with Keep Moving, Disk 2, which puts the focus on his 2003 debut, Keep Moving. Even though it invokes the title of the original album, it could more accurately be titled Pretty Much Everything I Did Between My First and Second Album, which was almost exactly four years from Jan 2003-Jan 2007.
Disk 2 collects great tracks off obscure EPs (“Get Me to Bed”), devastatingly beautiful covers (Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps”), surprisingly pretty demos (“California Skies”), and an aptly titled instrumental (“Instrumental”). It also includes no less than 21 live tracks, which are mostly of Keep Moving tracks. It is a deep dive into the catalog of Novi Split, and it will leave you charmed, pleased, and puzzled that Novi Split isn’t more well known. “The New Split (Live)” deeply moves me. “Me and Andy” has been one of my favorite songs for years. This reconsideration couldn’t come soon enough.
Once you’ve been blown away by his early work, let’s pick up with some mid-period stuff in Spare Songs. Pink in the Sink was a decidedly more hi-fi affair, and the songs on Spare Songs show that. “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” seems to have mixing and mastering, a luxury that was not expended on some of the early tracks. This by no means diminishes the charm of the early ones or raises the stature of the new ones. It merely makes them sound different.
David J’s voice gets featured a little less here, as his pristine songwriting gets played up. “Don’t Go Home” is an absolutely gorgeous piano tune, while “Pear” (a song I’ve never heard before) is a gentle, thoughtful instrumental that links up to previous tracks in the distant horn line. (Similar horn melodies will resurface in other songs–it’s a bonus, not a detractor. Trust me.) Spare Songs is capped by a delightfully weird and wonderful version of “Dancing in the Dark.” I like this version better than the Springsteen original, for real.
And finally, we make it to If Not This, Then What, which includes brand new versions of songs off Pink in the Sink (“You Got Served,” “Young Girls”), songs that got released between PITS and now (“Hollow Notes”), and a brand new cover (Blaze Foley’s “Clay Pigeons”). Through it all, David J displays the intimacy that characterized his early works with the pristine songwriting and hi-fi production of his later work. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: David J’s voice and songwriting sound effortless, as if he just opens his mouth and the music comes out. He’s significantly more alt-country than he used to be, but it’s not a twangy-voiced alt-country but a pedal-steel affection. It’s downright beautiful stuff.
Now that Novi Split has cleared out every corner of the vault, I hope that we’ll be seeing some brand new work in the upcoming years. With all his work available and easily accessible for the first time ever (you have no idea how hard I worked to track down all the tracks that are now available on a single Bandcamp page), hopefully people will start to pick up on an unheralded, underappreciated master of the craft.
The delicate, personal work of Novi Split is deeply underappreciated. I understand why: the songwriting project of David J specializes in erratically-timed releases that seem purposefully calculated to fly under the radar. His 2004 release Keep Moving blew my mind, so I have powered through these roadblocks ever since then to track down his music. However, not everyone enjoys scouring the corners of the Internet for tunes (2005 forever!), so Novi Split has stayed a mostly personal joy.
But now David J has collected four songs into the Creeping Around Your Face EP, his first proper release since 2011. The two originals and two covers are delicate, gorgeous tunes that showcase everything that is good and right with this band. David J’s gentle voice sounds completely effortless, as his tenor is clear, warm, and precise. He pairs his easygoing vocals with tidy, even fragile fingerpicked acoustic work. If Iron & Wine’s early work had been recorded hi-fi, it may have sounded like this.
The title track opens the set: “hold me in the dark/until the morning light come creeping around your face.” It’s a deeply romantic tune that looks not just at the highs of love, but the trials and travails of commitment to another person: “It’s so hard to be back home/and it’s so brutal to be on your own/and it’s been two weeks now, and I haven’t changed/says we are who we are, and we essentially stay the same.” The strings swell, the banjo plucks, and the drums create a nice backdrop to the optimistic, moving conclusion: “Baby, let’s have another baby,” repeated until David J’s voice fades away.
Iris Dement’s “Our Town” comes next, with David J adding his own arrangement style to it nicely. (You may know it as the song that played throughout the whole last scene of the last episode of Northern Exposure.) David J has an ear for finding songs that have sweetness and sadness in them; among the obscure tracks spread about the Internet are covers of Robyn Hitchcock’s “Madonna of the Wasps” and Material Issue’s “Very First Lie,” which both show off the talent. “Our Town” and the other cover, Daniel Ahearn’s “Light of God,” both have that tension of sweet and sad, which I’m a total sucker for. I don’t think I’ll able to hear the originals without thinking of Novi’s versions. That’s the mark of a great cover.
“Stupid” is a little more upbeat than the other three tunes, but it still retains a gentle, nylon-strings guitar feel. A country vibe rings in this one, with an electric guitar doing its best pedal steel impression. Distant horns give the track a majestic, stately feel, and the overall impact is impressive. It’s clear that a great amount of work went into making these songs sound like they happened effortlessly.
I don’t usually throw down 500 words about four songs, but Novi Split is completely worth the treatment. The Creeping Around Your Face EP is a masterful quartet of tunes by an artist who has been doing this for a very long time. If you’re a fan of intimate, personal, romantic singer/songwriters like Ray LaMontagne and David Ramirez, then you need to know about Novi Split. David J is one of the best songwriters we have writing today, and there needs to be more people on that train.
One of my favorite albums is Before Braille‘s 2004 EP Cattle Punching on a Jackrabbit, which features masterful rock tunes like “New Vein/Proventil” and “Well as Well.” It was one of the first albums I covered for Independent Clauses that I truly loved, with the other being Novi Split’s Keep Moving. I still listen to both frequently.
Before Braille met its demise in 2006, but frontman David Jensen moved on to other projects. I missed two albums under the name Art for Starters, but I’m back on board for his project Loyal Wife. Faux Light is the debut album for that project, and it doesn’t disappoint. The main elements of Before Braille’s sound are present, as well as growth.
Before Braille was an emo/rock band comparable to a thinking man’s Jimmy Eat World. The guitars were riff-heavy, and Jensen howled with a righteous fury against the ills and travails of the world. But lyrical, rhythmic and textural complexity set them apart from the pack. And so it is with Loyal Wife; there are riffing guitars, and there are some howling vocals—but there’s a lot more going on than just that.
A lot happens to mellow a man in eight years, and so tunes such as “Hold Up,” “GodSlight,” and “In Trouble” show a pensive side to Jensen that wasn’t on display in the frenzied Cattle Punching. “Hold Up” is one of the high points of the record, a stark acoustic tune that nails that rare space where honesty and tunefulness mix. It’s raw, but it’s not weepy or overdramatic; there’s a dignity that remains as Jensen sings “If I hold up,” and that’s powerful.
“GodSlight” includes bells into the acoustic mix, resulting in a nice mix between indie sensibility and plaintive emotion. “In Trouble” is the best moment for Ashley Taylor, the female vocalist who provides another critical difference from Before Braille and Loyal Wife. Her vocals mesh perfectly with the arrangement, a sparse rock tune that relies on the space between instruments and interactions between the male and female vocals. Jensen and Taylor harmonize excellently together, and “In Trouble” is the overall highlight of the record due to its spotlighting of the duo.
The rock tunes here are solid as well. The doggedly rhythmic closer “Light Off” recalling the most brittle, brutal moments of Before Braille in the best way, while “Ivory” sets Taylor as the frontwoman against a pounding rock track (Jensen handles the vocals in the great breakdown riff). It’s passionate rock with a dark timbre but not a dark tone; it’s a rare middle-ground that Loyal Wife strikes, and I like that a great deal.
Loyal Wife’s Faux Light is an album of slowly-unfolding charms. After the immediate hit of “Hold Up” and “In Trouble,” the rest of the tunes here grew on me. It’s a definite progression, and one worth checking out. If you want passion in your rock and quiet tunes, Loyal Wife should be on your radar.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.