Jason McNiff and the Lone Malones: A Redo on Dylan, with an Assertive Sound of His Own
By now, it’s almost a cliché, but the truth seems incontestable. Jason McNiff may be the best artist no one’s heard of yet, at least outside the U.K. That’s the assessment that was recently affirmed by Mojo, a leading U.K. arbiter of trends and tradition. Five albums on, McNiff now gives equal billing to his band, The Lone Malones, and in so doing, has come up with the best album of his career, an assured mix of affecting Americana and honest intent.
Although he doesn’t emulate anyone in particular, strains of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan linger in the foreground of God Knows Why We Dream, particularly in the impactful melodies that come to the fore on “The Picture,” “A Different World,” “Green,” and “Game Over.” Yet McNiff is far removed from any semblance of a turgid troubadour; his low-cast, unassuming vocals sometimes seem at odds with the music, a reluctant cheerleader who finds himself caught up in a sheer sweep and surge. And yet the results are so compelling, so assertive, so infectious, that they beg repeated listens. Likewise, McNiff’s slower songs – “God Knows Why We Dream,” “Thanks Leonard,” “Before I Love You” – ring with the same kind of resilience. God Knows Why We Dream is one of those albums that comes along only once in a while, but it’s already a contender to be called an instant classic.
In a certain sense, McNiff’s penchant for Americana seems somewhat unlikely. Being of Polish/Irish descent, his songs reference the quaint details of European life, yet do so with a distinctly folk-country perspective. Britain’s popular weekly Time Out called him “a romantic loner at home with the blues,” but McNiff’s gift for melody makes that description seem somewhat restrictive. His unabashed fondness for Dylan brings that back country flavor to the fore, but regardless, it’s to McNiff’s credit that he doesn’t put any parameters on his sound.
Indeed, although McNiff’s music is a product of the new millennium, it brings to mind more of a seminal sound, one that first flowered in the late ’60s bohemian haunts of Greenwich Village, Boston, London, and Los Angeles. He cites such influences as Dylan – of course – as well as Tim Hardin and Townes Van Zandt, and the imagery and emotion McNiff imbues in his songs likely have their spirits nodding in approval. It’s a combination that’s present in every one of his four previous albums – Off the Rails (2000), Nobody’s Son (2003), Another Man (2006), and April Cruel (2011), as well as his early anthology, In My Time (2008). And while McNiff’s original material is clearly his prime draw, his transformation of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” into a somber, folk-like dirge and the appropriation of the Italian standard “Bella Ciao” also add some interesting tweaks to his resume.
With the Lone Malones in tow, McNiff may eventually capture the niche that Dylan did with a band: that is, the combination of a superior singer/writer with an instrumental ensemble well equipped to parlay any purpose. Make note – he’s one to watch.