Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience's "I Like Rain": Music Review

 I Like Rain: Story of the Jean-Paul Sartre Exp.
During the height of college rock two or three decades ago, New Zealand's Flying Nun label featured many melodic bands. The Chills, The Clean, The Bats, The Verlaines: these names conveyed attitude. An article followed by a slightly odd noun. With the name The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, what the listener might expect remained as enigmatic as the off-beat moniker itself from this foursome.

I Like Rain collects every recording released by what I will abbreviate to JPSE. Their three studio albums, plus EPs and singles, comprise 54 songs, usually understated rather than assertive. As with their labelmates, this band combines light pop with darker sounds and dissonant guitars, stirring up the depths beneath superficially sunny tunes. Flying Nun bands mingle quirky lyrics with jangling rock. JPSE starts out this compilation resembling a lo-fi, DIY approach of its NZ peers, if hesitantly.

Founded in 1984 in Christchurch, JPSE two years on, in {Love Songs}, follows this modest mode. The songs chug along pleasantly, but as with many minor bands on their label, without enough gravitas. Bassist Dave Yetton sing-songs too much. His voice, however wistful, lacks force. "Grey Parade," with its ode to the wet climate of their homeland, stands out. "Transnational Love Song" rises above other ditties through its stronger grasp on structure and a memorable, if warped, mood.

These qualities make much of 1989's The Size of Food a better example of JPSE's talents. "Elemental" captures the marine feel of the best of Flying Nun's signature sound, for me one drawing from the ocean depths a heavier undertow of menace, balanced against a lighter, breezier ambiance.
"Slip" begins with Jim Laing and David Mulcahy's twinned guitar drone, before Gary Sullivan's stuttering percussion shatters the steady hum. This song also shows, along a few other tracks, the transformation of songs between their single and album versions, which often differ significantly. This adds value to this compilation, for JPSE reworks some of its most tuneful songs, recognizing their potential for improvement and modification. Production on album two heightens their impact.

Yetton's decision to warble or bury his voice may have hobbled the band's struggle to find a larger audience. Too many songs saunter along, but they lack more than a casual air of geniality to stand out. The songs that endure are the ones that connect Yetton's voice to more aggressive guitars, and Sullivan's drums. They harness the band's songwriting potential by tightening engaging.harmonies.

"Shadows" resembles another band on the label with a curious name, Straitjacket Fits, and Yetton's voice takes their same gentle croon. A perky "Mothers" moves the track sequence along smoothly. "Crush" and "Precious" deserve a place in favorite tracks to save to a playlist. For Pavement fans, a listen to "Thrills" reminds audiences of how much of a debt Stephen Malkmus and company owe to the Flying Nun roster. The stop and start rhythms, the mumbled words, the fragmented snatches of poetry and the knack for songs that one can hum are all here. JPSE kept getting better, mid-career.

This grittier polish rubbed off on album three, just as Pavement was emerging across the Pacific. Hobbled by a lawsuit from Jean-Paul Sartre's estate over the rights to their name, crippled by Flying Nun's financial troubles, three EPs occupied JPSE. However, their third album sat in the vaults.

The band shifted into another indie band's characteristic song pattern. Circa Honey's Dead and Automatic, The Jesus and Mary Chain introduced a heavier electronic and dance beat into their own guitar-driven, hazy dissonance. "Spaceman" on Bleeding Star could pass for a JMC cover.
JPSE moved in another direction, away from lo-fi to a louder, grittier production. The big drum sound common to many mid-80s rock bands echoes here, along with slurred vocals and hefty beats.

The band's best songs appear early on Bleeding Star. "Rain and Shine" and "I Believe in You" combine hook-laden choruses with guitar riffs and that period's love of processed, booming drums. But the album holds up well, especially in its first half. Delayed by two years, its 1993 appearance proved well-timed. Matador distributed it in the U.S., and I can attest as a devoted buyer of Flying Nun imports how happy I was to find it domestically.  But the album failed to break JPSE overseas.

Riven by strife, they soon broke up. Still, great songs lurk at the end of this anthology. "Into You" for me is their best track. Two alternate mixes prove the band knew its appeal too. I Like Rain ends with three songs from the extended single of "Into You." They all could have been contenders on The Size of Food or Bleeding Star. They mix shoegaze with soft pop, and they attest to the talent within this line-up. "Block" begins with a quiet passage recalling Brian Eno's "The Big Ship." Again, the blend of the maritime and the juggernaut, the forceful and the gentle, distinguishes JPSE's music. (9-14-15 to Spectrum Culture. Also Amazon US 9-22-15).

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