HOLD THE EGGNOG The Jigsaw Seen

In how
we learn how to make a not-exactly-a-holiday-album.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Why would any self-respecting rock band make a Christmas
album?  The bargain bins are tipping with
seasonal detritus, ill-advised forays into holiday cheer. My own favorite, a
cassette that wore out years ago, was The
Reggae Christmas
, which, I dimly recall, had Eek-A-Mouse’s version of “The Night
Before Christmas.” It was just the thing to clear the room of all relatives
over the age of 30, damned useful in those days. But really, after a whole
month of schlepping through Target and Macy’s and waiting on hold for a Lands’
End operator, who has any real need for more Christmas music?  Surely we can agree that no version of
“Jingle Bell Rock” is either a) music, or b) any kind of holiday.

 

Tell that to the Jigsaw Seen, LA’s best mod-referencing,
power-chording, melodic rock band, an outfit that has made not one but two
holiday recordings, the first a 2006 EP called What About Christmas, the second, out now, a full-length named Winterland. And here’s the shocker:
they’re both pretty good.

The secret, says Dennis Davison, is to not really make a Christmas album. “Very few of the songs are actually about Christmas,”
he says. “Even those are not really so much about Christmas. They just happen
to take place during Christmas. So, yeah, we were very conscious of the idea
that we didn’t want the whole concept to come across like a bunch of cornball
Christmas songs.”

 

The Jigsaw Seen has been together since 1988, when Davison
moved from the East Coast to California
and met up with guitarist Jonathan Lea. Their first album Shortcut Through Clown Alley was released in 1990, but the band
didn’t really develop their current mod-psychedelic sound until the 1991 EP My Name Is Tom. “When I first started, I
was probably more into a folk rock kind of thing. I liked the Turtles and the
Left Banke,” says Davison. “We still obviously have that element in our music
now. But we’ve moved away from that pretty early on into a little more dark, a
little heavier sound.”

 

By the mid-1990s, the band had settled on a core line-up of
Davison and Lea, plus bass player Tom Currier and drummer Teddy Freese. Zenith, released in 2000, won critical
praise and a Grammy nomination for Best Packaging for Lea, who is also a
graphic designer. A series of compilation tracks, a covers album, and a couple
of EPs got the band through the aughts, and then, in 2010, their Bananas Foster followed. Terrascope, the UK arbiter of psychedelia, called
the album’s 11 tracks “highly-orchestrated mini-symphonies,” and concluded
“Variety and overall tone make this an impressive work.” Meanwhile, BLURT enthused in its review, “With Bananas Foster, as the old pop song
goes, they’ve finished their lifelong spiritual walkabout ‘out of the
commonplace into the rare.’ This is their best album ever.”

 

Winterland, the
band’s fifth full-length, was originally intended to be an EP, a place to
gather all of the winter seasonal material Davison had produced over the years.
 “I’d written a few Christmas songs years
ago and we never really did anything with them. We used to play them live
around Christmastime,” Davison explains. “We always thought, oh, we should
compile these on an album one day and try to do a theme around that.” The 2006
EP showcased one of these tracks, “What About Christmas” as well as some seasonal
material recorded live, but Davison felt that the band had more to say about
winter.

 

“When it came time to do Winterland,
we decided to record ‘What About Christmas,'” he says. ” We thought would make
a good lead-off track, because it’s really a song that contemplates the coming
of Christmas and the exaggerated emotions that people feel around that time.” The
band also planned to record a couple of older songs – “Candy Cane” and
“Winterland’s Gone” – to fill out the EP.

 

 Yet along the way,
Davison found himself writing a whole batch of new songs, not so much about
Christmas as about his late-1980s move to LA. In rapid succession, he penned
“Christmas Behind Me,” “First Day of the New Year, and “Dreams of Spring.”

 

 “The album became
about leaving Baltimore
and that whole winter landscape behind me, and also leaving family, moving on
and starting a new life,” he says. He adds that he also saw cold weather as a
metaphor for depression, and the album as a story of overcoming it. “I couldn’t
leave the record as just a dark depressing winter landscape, I had to let the
listener come out of that. So that’s why I wrote ‘Dreams of Spring,’ for the
end of the album. It’s the end of winter and coming out of isolation.”  

 

 Right at the end of
the recording period, he added “Snow Angels of Pigtown,” the album’s stand-out
track. “I said to Jonathan, ‘You’re going to kill me, but I’ve got one more
song that I think really has to go on the album.’  But it worked out. We knocked it out pretty
quickly,” says Davison.

 

Lea suggested a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Circle of
Steel,” and convinced Dave Davies to sing on it. (Lea has been playing in
Davies’ band since the early ‘00s.) 
Having one of the Kinks in to sing harmonies on your record is, Davison
says, a “strange” experience. However, it turned out that his voice and Davies
were close matches. “When I first heard his voice with my voice, I was like
wow. We had no idea whether our voices would work together, but I think they
do. A lot of people when they heard it, they just thought it was me singing
harmonies with myself,” he says. “It turned out great. I’m really happy with
it.”

 

Today, the Jigsaw Seen is most often compared to late 1960s
bands, not just the Kinks but the Who and the Zombies and other lesser known
mods. Davison says he discovered these bands relatively late, after a
punk-obsessed adolescence and a fascination with Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Lou
Reed. “After a few years, punk sort of died out for me after a while and seemed
sort of stale, and so I looked back more at older music,” he remembers. “That
era, the late 1960s, was sort of a golden age of pop music. It was before music
got super commercial, before figured out that they could make music that was
commercial without being very creative about it. ”  

 

 Yet though the Jigsaw
Seen evokes the 1960s, Davison bristles a little at the “retro” label. “We just
sort of make some music that comes naturally to us and there’s not much we can
do about it,” he says. And, as time goes on, fewer and fewer people really know
what the 1960s sounded like anyway.  “I’ve
noticed that a lot of people will lump the 1960s and the 1970s together, as if
they were one decade. They’ll talk about disco being from the 1960s,” he adds.
“It doesn’t really mean that much to me anymore, what people think. They’re
usually wrong.”

 

Ed.
Note: Go here to read a concert review of the Jigsaw Seen, live in San Francisco, December
2, 2011.

 

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