Review: Courtney Jaye – The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye (2010, Tropicali)
Those who know Courtney Jaye from her 2005 release on Island, Traveling Light, don’t really know Courtney Jaye. A pleasant album with glossy production, an airbrushed cover and some memorable pop hooks, it propelled her into the pop mainstream, culminating with some film and television placements (including a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain”), and a performance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Not Conan or Letterman or Kimmel, but Leno, which tells you where her label was headed. She could see the direction the machine was taking her career, but unlike many talented young artists who sell their dreams short, Jaye shucked off the industry’s plans, took stock and reinvested in her own artist visions. She relocated to Northern California, Austin and eventually Nashville, and gathered into one set of songs the wide variety of sounds that had excited her ear.
The result is this independently recorded and released second album, with a cover that teases with the allure of Sandy Warner, and pays off with an alchemy of musical styles that bounce from girl-group to Topanga Canyon singer-songwriter to country twang to Hawaiian slack-key and exotica to classic Brill Building pop. Her knack for writing killer pop hooks is not only intact, but amplified by productions that have the spontaneous DIY charms of 1960s singles that weren’t belabored into aural numbness. Stripped of the debut album’s production gloss, Jaye’s voice is freed to launch emotional barbs into your heart. If you listen to only one song on this album, check out the video below for “Don’t Tell a Girl.” The melody and chorus hook are so necessarily repeatable as to make the track’s 3:30 about ten minutes too short. Somebody needs to spring Phil Spector from prison so he can produce a Wall of Sound version of this song.
The album opens with a lo-fi count-off and the drippy slide guitar that George Harrison played in the 1970s, but the rhythm has a Latin tinge and Jaye’s double-tracked vocal tumbles out with both need and doubt. It’s the sort of idiosyncratic mix of sounds that could only spring from an artist’s singular history of influences, giving the pained lyrics the bounce of false hope and the ache of unfulfilled longing. Jaye manages to suggest both the adolescent heartache of girl-groups and the more seasoned sorrow of grown women. She evokes Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Kelly Willis and Rosanne Cash, but also, on the dreamily harmonized “Sweet Ride,” the mid-70s Fleetwood Mac sound of Buckingham and Nicks. There’s bending steel, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, ukuleles and baion beats that trace Jaye’s travels between Hawaii, California, Texas, and Tennessee. There are even some Arthur Lyman-styled bird calls on the instrumental “Maru Maru.”
A few of the tracks may remind you of Sheryl Crow’s summery singles, but just as you warm sound of “Sunlight,” Jaye cranks up the Gram Parsons-styled honky-tonk of “Box Wine.” And again, it all fits together into what Jaye’s dubbed “Tropicalicountry”: a blend of Hawaiian and country roots with the indie freedom of Austin and the mid-70s buzz of Los Angeles. Jaye began her journey to this amalgam with the Gary Louris-produced EP ‘Til it Bleeds, but here, co-producing with Seth Kauffmann (who also plays most of the instruments), she’s gotten the full symphony of sounds out of her head and onto tape. And just when you think you’ve hard all the album’s surprises, Jaye duets with Band of Horses’ Ben Bridwell for a twanging back-porch country cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sometimes Always.” And just like the rest of the album, it works perfectly and without compromise.