BY JOHN SCHACT
In this era of beard-and-beanie conformity, truly original voices are such rare specimens that it’s hard not to offer praise based on that factor alone. So maybe that consideration does initially color Chris Flemmons’ first music in a decade as Denton, Texas’ The Baptist Generals. But these idiosyncratic songs quickly stand out all on their own.
Flemmons scrapped an entire LP in 2005, and kept busy with Denton 35, a regional festival, before Jackleg to the Devotional finally emerged. Stuart Sikes, who’s worked with Modest Mouse and Cat Power, was brought in to co-produce, and the results are far more polished than the band’s aggressively lo-fi debut No Silver/No Gold. Those songs recalled Souled American’s tumbledown country folk, only on a drunken bender. (The opener, “Ay Distress,” comes to an abrupt end when Flemmons’ cellphone goes off, followed shortly by Flemmons.) On the new record, the improved sonics and fuller arrangements are no surprise since Flemmons largely left the arrangements to his band of trusted Texan musicians.
That said, the new one certainly bears Flemmons’ stamp in eccentric songs that have been championed by, among others, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle — a musician familiar with idiosyncratic music. On Jackleg, the songs drift into another eccentric’s orbit — Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum — and smolder throughout with the manic sense that Flemmons verges on either a good cry or belly laugh.
Mangum turns out to be a natural if imperfect reference point for a couple of reasons. Flemmons’ pinched tenor yelp is cousin to the NMH frontman, and though Jackleg lacks In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s ambitious scope, its themes and songs come off as a totality. Flemmons calls this his love record, and if that’s the case, he’s had an interesting go of it.
“My god that trollop was loud/she told me that I was her king/cuz I paid her well/she could lie like my mother/she told me that I was a dream,” Flemmons crackles over vibes and nylon-stringed guitar on the unfortunately named shuffle “Clitorpus Christi.” That song forms part of a more up-tempo first half, kicked off by the instrumental thumper “Machine En Propelis” and highlighted by the catchy single “Dog That Bit You,” whose slippery electric riffs are buffeted by strings and horns. Even the slow-moving love-is-fickle roadmap, “Turnovers and Overpasses,” jangles the nerves with its metronomic click.
Not every experiment should’ve left the lab, however. The first side ends with “3 Bromides,” a Talking Heads-like misstep reminiscent of David Byrne’s patter on “Once In A Lifetime,” only without that song’s infectious chorus (or any chorus at all). Thankfully, the LP’s most beautiful moment, “Broken Glass,” follows and opens the more sedate second side. Over a blanket of vibes, bowed bass and ambient noise, Flemmons burrows to the loneliest part of the human heart before emerging with an uplifting and tumultuous chorus, singing “All these false starts/and our pitiful glassy hearts/reduced to shards/this is the shame of the day/but there’s beauty in 100 pieces.” Other stunning moments follow, like “Snow On the FM,” where Flemmons’ nylon playing shines, and the lamented innocence of “Floating,” which emerges out of 90 seconds of static and clatter to provide the LP’s most Neutral Milk Hotel-like moment.
The LP closes with a pair of richly arranged songs bookending “Morning Of My Life,” a pretty nylon-and-contrabass declaration of carpe diem. “My O My” recalls Lambchop’s take on countrypolitan, and the wind, horn and string arrangements of “Oblivion Overture” morph that song into a chamber orchestra piece nearly unrecognizable but for the melody at its core.
Fondness for Jackleg only grows the more time you spend with it. Some of that is nostalgic, perhaps, for an era — the ‘90s — when indie music seemed populated with nothing but weirdo outsiders. Somehow, they connected with the rest of us through music that was intelligent and eclectic and still had the power to move us. Listening to Flemmons reminds you how precious and rare those traits have become.
DOWNLOAD: “Dog That Bit You,” “Turnunders and Overpasses” “My O My” “Floating”