The James Rocket – Launch (2012) – an album review

The James Rocket, these days, is the dynamic duo of James William Roy (guitars, bass, vocals, songwriting) and Markleford Friedman (drums and production). James lives in Brooklyn. Markleford lives in Boston. That’s probably as much as you need to know about them, other than that they are gods among men. Now, I’m a fan. I’ve been listening to James’ songs and talking to him about music for years, so I’m not even remotely impartial. Just thought I’d cut through the haze there, in case there was confusion.

So, why am I even bothering to write a review if the net result is going to be that I liked an album by a band I like? Well, for one thing, I’m going to take the time to tell you why I like each song, and I’m going to do it as objectively as possible. I can do this because I’ve already been pretty objective with James’ songs over the years, so it’s easy for me to dissect them and analyze where they’re at.

So let’s get to it.

tl;dr Version: Who? The Fuck? Are They? Are you trying to get me to listen to some amateur hour stuff, like that crap you make?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Short answer: No. I’m trying to get you to listen to some really great independent rock music by a guy who knows how to write, knows how to play, and with the help of his friend, knows how to record and engineer a great indie rock album. So, quite unlike me, who (arguably) knows how to write, but not much more. And besides, his songs are nice and tight and bouncy. You can’t lose. Shut up and play the record already. You could have been done by now if you hadn’t picked a fight with me.

Boring Version: James is a guy I met years ago on LiveJournal through a mutual friend of ours (thanks, Jess). We were, I think, discussing the definition and relative merits of Emo Rock, and it just went from there. These days, we exchange demos and discuss what the other could possibly do to punch up their track or smooth out an arrangement or some such. So, friends and colleagues, in a way, except that he’s a few years older than me and has been in several bands that have actually gigged and/or recorded quite a bit, where I’ve essentially been in three bands that didn’t do a hell of a lot. So, really, I flatter myself.

But we’re not here to discuss me; we’re here to discuss Launch, which is an appropriate title, as it’s The James Rocket’s first official LP release. James has been working on these songs for a handful of years now, and with the help of his cohort, Markleford, drummer and producer extraordinaire, has managed to polish them to a well-deserved shine. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of hearing these songs develop over the years, and even offered one or two useful suggestions or words of encouragement along the way, so I feel somewhat invested in this album as well. Also, as most of you might know, I wouldn’t be reviewing the album if I didn’t like it. That’s just how I roll.

All that said, I’m gonna tear into it as best I can, now. I’m just going to break down what James and Markleford have done with these tracks, and hopefully present a pretty honest assessment of their work, and whether or not I think they’re as polished as they perhaps ought to be. Here goes nothing:

Paper Valentines is probably the strongest, catchiest pop tune James has written since I met him, and I have heard this song go through several subtle but striking revisions to arrive at this definitive version. It starts with one of the bounciest, most insistent drum and bass lines imaginable, and is quickly joined by a joyful racket of guitars and a chorus of James singing one of the catchiest opening lines I’ve ever heard ‘Twinkle sprinkles, ball point ink, and paper doily lace set off the red of my paper valentine heart.’ He goes on to explain what his paramour can do with his gift, how easy it is to make one, and yet how special it is because it’s the only one he’s giving. The juxtaposition of edgy guitars, edgy lines and delicate-but-pragmatic sentiments is a lovely balancing act that he gets just right. The arrangement, which has undergone some refinement since I first heard it, is practically a textbook example of how an indie pop song should sound. Flawless, from the jangling wall of guitars, the poignant and understated guitar solo, the note perfect vocal harmonies, the almost-but-not-quite punk rhythm, and the crystal clear sound production. If they had never recorded the album that follows, they’d still have recorded the brightest single imaginable.

Opted In is very much in a punk vein, and serves as a blistering condemnation of our modern society’s penchant for living in credit debt to keep up with the Joneses. The language is appropriately harsh, and the arrangement is so tight with scratchy guitars that you couldn’t fit anything else into the space if you tried. And yet they do, squeezing in a breathy whistling solo over the guitar solo, which just takes it to a place I never imagined it going. It firmly plants it’s tongue into its cheek and slaughters the fatted calf with a switchblade, and before you know it, it’s over. The Ramones would be proud.

Summer Calendar is an acoustic-and-accordion-laden ode to loneliness, with a great jangling hook in the refrain. It’s a short, sassy pop tune with a guitar solo that’s new to me, which has a great tone. Then there’s a choral hook in the outro that is guaranteed to get your head bobbing and humming along.

Francis Gary is an acoustic tune with a plaintive vocal treatment that I remember being slightly washed out and hard to hear on the demo, but sounds clear as a bell here. It reminds me (please don’t hit me, James) of Matthew Sweet, right down to the understated but classic rock-toned guitar solo. I particularly like how he builds the them going into the outro to a higher intensity than the original demo. Nice work.

Don’t Say I Told You So opens with a slightly jangly, infectious riff that leads into the verse supported largely by the bass line. It’s a good song, and it holds up well here with the polished sound, but I suspect I’d enjoy it more if I had the headphones unplugged and the speakers on, so I could hear the mix more clearly. Since I’m writing this review with my wife in situ, headphones are required out of respect, so I’ll probably leave this one until a later hour and try it again.

Shiny Dark Bar, for my money, is the only other tune that could have opened this album. That it doesn’t speaks volumes for the power of Paper Valentines, but believe me, this track could have done the job; believe me, I’ve proven it scientifically. It opens with a wonderfully-effected vocal introduction that is quickly joined by a swelling cacophony of crunching guitars and bass dense enough to break a skill saw blade. It’s not all dense and choking, though, as the song is punctuated by musical breaks that just make the riff that much more affecting. The chorus is a powerful combination of slashing guitars and shouted vocals, and the dancing bass line through the remaining verses leading up to the bridge and outro are a treat for any bass fanatic. The outro is even better than I remember it, and Markleford’s drumming is perfect on this track. Still one of my absolute favourites.

ABQ is a song that took me some time to really appreciate, but I’ll tell you, it’s got a hook that will have you singing along. This version of the song is so much better than I thought this song could be, which goes to show, even I can be schooled. It’s bass chord heavy, punctuated by angular guitars and sparse vocal arrangements, plus a sparsely-arranged bridge section that just brings the song to life. The outro vocal arrangement is a nice addition as well.

Sea of Dolls is another song that took me time to appreciate, because it’s all angular guitars and sparse rhythms under a very fragile vocal performance, in an almost Jane’’s Addiction/Porno For Pyros vein. However, it is a song that grows on you, and it has a beautiful outro, like waves receding on the tide; well worth the trip.

Pretty White Flag opens with a blast of angry garage rock guitars, and a lyric that takes a guy to task for taking his lady love for granted. It’s a song for her. You know her. The girl who stays in the shitty relationship because she loves the guy anyway. He may not be one of those brutal assholes, but he’s a bit of a schmuck, and she’s taking it like a champ. This is her anthem, and it fucking rocks mightily, just the way it ought to. Markleford’s production work and prompting James to polish up the guitars and performances is a total success here. One of my favourites.

Red Guard is a hilariously perfect little piece of indie magic. It starts quietly with the goofiest arrangement of percussion noises, building to a fevered pitch and exploding into the crunchiest chorus on the whole album. I’d join James’ band just to play this song and sing it with him on stage. I deny complicity in the cultural revolution!

Grey Stations opens quietly with lovely electric Rickenbacker twelve string chords piercing the ambience, soon filled with a wall of Mellotron and pricelessly perfect pop drumming, as James sings about a couple who have had perhaps a little too much of not enough for too long. Boy howdy do I know what this song is about, and I don’t even live in NYC. It’s one of James’ finest, most affecting pop songs, and I really want to see an animated video for it some day, if I can ever work out how to finance and staff a crew to make it. It’s such a powerful finish, if you aren’t singing it and making yourself hoarse with James, you should maybe have someone check to see if you still have a pulse. Yes, this too is a personal fave. Fuck off. 🙂

Tenants is that quiet, melancholic number that I’m still working to appreciate. I can see the need to change gears for an end to an album with so many highs, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s the perfect end to the album. That said, I’ve closed with moody numbers as well, so I get it. Tenants isn’t a favourite track, but it has some very nice bass playing, which is James’ first instrument, so it deserves listening to for that if nothing else. The song itself is a slow meditation on wanting to live in a better place, but having to make do with what you’ve got. The vocal performance reminds me of Martin Tielli of the Rheostatics. This could have been a Rheostatics tune, actually, and that’s probably what’s going to make me fall in love with it, too.

Okay, it doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that I like this album, even though I know all of the songs already (I even sent James a mixed CD of most of my favourite tracks from his catalogue, sequenced the way I’d make an album for him, and I used almost all of the same tracks by complete coincidence… and there were still enough great tracks on my disc to make a second such album from!). The remarkable thing for me is just how very good the arrangements, performances and mixes are on this album. It’s not all conducive to headphone listening, at least if you want to get the full effect, but then, I find very little music is made these days that genuinely sounds awesome on both speakers and headphones. That’s no slight on James or Markleford; the songs sound good even on my headphones. Sadly, the GOOD headphones died late last week, so the shitty ones I’m using now are making it difficult to properly hear the mixes the way I’m inclined to after dozens of hours spent under headphones mucking with my own stuff. James knows about the woes of bad headphones and especially ear buds, so I don’t need to explain to him what I’m going through to get this review done.

What I heard coming out of the speakers this morning (while MLW was in the shower), however, was like a sea change from what I’ve heard of these songs in the past, whether through headphones of speakers. Markleford has given the tracks so much depth, warmth and clarity that, at times, I almost think I’m hearing the song for the first time. Certainly some of the clever new arrangement enhancements make it a treat to listen to them again.

So what I’m gonna tell you is, if you’re a fan of stuff like Sonic Youth, the Sugar Cubes and The Pixies, you’d be a fool not to pick this album up (It’s not his heaviest stuff, so I haven’t mentioned any of his other stronger influences). I don’t really consider myself a true fan of those bands, but I really ought to be, because I love James’ work, and I think this album, though essentially a remix album for me, is fantastic. It’s also such an important step towards taking the songs where they needed to go, sonically speaking. The album is an excellent primer into the back catalogue of songs James still has in store for us with his next album, which can’t come too soon. Naturally, buying this new album wouldn’t hurt in making the next one come sooner rather than later. I’ve provided a convenient link below for those who can’t take a hint. Make your Uncle Eddie proud.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

Don't be shy. Tell me what you really think, now.


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