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The Graham Album Review #1825

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Stolen Jars: Kept
by George Graham

(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/26/2015)

Quirky music has a long tradition in the rock world. Back in the psychedelic days of the 1960s, there were a raft of groups who went in for quasi-experimental sounds, or perhaps thought that their music was particularly profound with the aid of certain substances that gave the era its name. In today’s commercial pop world there is very little of that kind of iconoclasm, but the alternative scene holds a lot more. But as in past eras, it’s not always musically successful.

This week, we have a rather quirky but interesting new album by a New Jersey based group, mainly just two people, who call themselves Stolen Jars, and their debut full-length recording is called Kept.

Stolen Jars are from Montclair, New Jersey, and initially was a one-person project by multi-instrumentalist Cody Fitzgerald, starting in 2011. The band’s website says that was at the time leading up to Fitzgerald’s high school graduation and planned leaving of home. The music was based on a bunch of guitar loops – snippets of sound that repeat usually with added parts – which allowed for a bunch of virtual overdubbing. Stolen Jars released couple of singles, and now is out full-length CD. In the meantime, Molly Grund joined the group concentrating on the vocals with Fitzgerald still on most of the instruments. There are some others who appear on the CD such as Will Radin who plays both bass and drums in spots, and some additional backing vocalists. Fitzgerald still does most of the lead vocals. His voice is somewhat reminiscent of the angst-y quality of Connor Oberst of the Bright Eyes band. It still remains a kind of do-it-self-project with the credits saying that it was recorded in various people’s bedrooms.

What makes Stolen Jars’ music interesting is the way that Fitzgerald uses the loop-based techniques with instrumentation that is largely acoustic. That is combined with somewhat unconventional percussion, often sounding more like ordinary objects rather than a regular drum set. The result seems to create the effect of polyrhythms at times, with the loop-like structure hinting at the minimalist music of Philip Glass. Lyrically, the songs are poetic to the point of inscrutability. The music ranges from rather intimate sounding up to something rather strong and electric, from almost folky to taking an alternative rock direction. Perhaps a bit surprising is how well it all holds together musically.

The CD opens with a piece called Waves that illustrates the quirky but interesting sound of Stolen Jars. The elements of the group sound are highlighted – the loop-like guitar figures, the unconventional percussion, the good use of the dynamics and the ever-present alternative rock edge. <<>>

The title track, Kept continues the group’s distinctive sound with the sonuc combination that makes up the band’s interesting, quirky approach. <<>>

The first of the tracks to feature Ms. Grund on the lead vocals is called Another November. It seems to be a kind of oblique love song with lyrics about as distinctive as the band’s sound. <<>>

A track called Wreaths Rakes takes on an almost theatrical quality with the sound becoming more layered. <<>>

Another of the highlights on the album, in terms of its creativity, is a piece called Folded Out. There are horns are added as the piece builds to a somewhat ambiguous crescendo. <<>>

The more mellow side of the album, or as close to mellow that this somewhat nervous-sounding album can come – is a piece called For Dan, through the lyrical sentiments don’t seem to evoke that kind of mood. It’s another clever blend. <<>>

The CD ends with Wheel also reflecting the band’s quirky side both musically and lyrically. <<>>

Kept, the debut full-length album by the New Jersey band Stolen Jars, is a good example of when independent mostly do-it-yourself music can be creative and interesting. All too often so-called “indie” rock band albums in artist-run independent pseudo-labels can be pretty awful, with no one assuming the role of the record company artistry-and-repertiore people who used to used to say “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” But the shift to independent self-released material has certainly opened up the field to music that may not be very commercial, so overall it’s good that the internet has provided opportunities for bands like Stolen Jars get their music heard and available. Whether by serendipity or design, Stolen Jars has come up with an interesting, creative album that shows influence from sources ranging from Philip Glass’ minimalist music to alternative rockers like the band Bright Eyes. It’s generally clever and though somewhat iconoclastic musically, it’s entertaining and easy to listen to with its mostly acoustic instrumentation.

Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. I give it an A-plus for effort, combining disparate sessions that took place in various bedrooms, as the liner notes say. In that respect, mixing engineer Ed Creues did a commendable job in combining the bits recorded probably on laptops, and making something reasonably cohesive about it. The overall dynamic range, as usual for these kinds of things, could have been better, with volume compression undermining the performance dynamics of of the music. But there have been much worse records in that respect. It generally fits in with the drift and direction the album.

As far as I’m concerned, there has always been room in the rock world for artists and bands who are on the quirky side. The trick is also showing some imagination and musical skill to turn those ideas or perhaps happy accidents into something artistically worthwhile. Stolen Jars have done that on the new album.

(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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