ON THE RECORD: The Baptist Generals
Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, The Baptist Generals (Sub Pop)
There’s no question that The Baptist Generals’ mastermind Chris Flemmons belongs in special group of pop eccentrics, including fellow Texan Roky Erickson. After a series of unsuccessful attempts in completing a follow-up to his critically-lauded 2003 debut No Silver/No Gold (including scrapping an entire album in 2005), Flemmons backed away from writing and performing music, and instead, he began organizing alternative festivals in his hometown of Denton, Texas. It should be noted that Denton is homebase for an eclectic group of musicians, including The Polyphonic Spree, Brave Combo, Bowling For Soup and Midlake. So it came as no surprise that Flemmons found a thriving community of like-minded, talented musicians who could realize the songwriter’s more experimental sides of folk, rock and pop. Though, it does come as a minor surprise to find that The Baptist Generals’ sophomore Sub Pop full-length, Jackleg Devotional to the Heart, arrives as such a triumph.
Thankfully, Flemmons, a known control freak, loosened the reins on the long-labored collection of songs and relinquished control to his bandmates, most notably to Baptist Generals’ instrumentalists Peter Salisbury and Jason Reimer (who also co-produced). They, along with producer Stuart Sykes — who also worked with Cat Power, Loretta Lynn and The Walkmen, among others — shaped and flushed out the compositions, shaping Jackleg into a fully rounded recording.
The song that best exhibits the band’s intricate, eloquent and experimental instrumentation is “Turnunders and Overpasses,” with its syncopated drum beat, krautrock-like bass line, subtle eccentric percussive touches, brief organ chords and Flemmons’ nearly-cracking voice asking, “What do you want?”
From the opening, bright instrumental opener, the listener gets a sense that this isn’t a typical pop record, one normally “front-loaded” with epic hits. Pleasingly, it’s quite the opposite. Jackleg is a record you listen to on a home stereo wired with old-school speakers. There’s a contrast in its pace and contains arcs like an album, rewarding you when it has your full attention. “Dog That Bit You,” which immediately follows, is a jaunty, hazy, mid-tempo rock number that recalls a mixture of Crazy Horse and the Brooklyn-based lo-fi outfit Woods, with Flemmons’ nasal delivery rolls over the top. Flemmons’ raw, emotion leans toward the late singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. There’s a bare, vulnerable yet powerful element they both share.
The song that best exhibits the band’s intricate, eloquent and experimental instrumentation is “Turnunders and Overpasses,” with its syncopated drum beat, krautrock-like bass line, subtle eccentric percussive touches, brief organ chords and Flemmons’ nearly-cracking voice asking, “What do you want?” Its masterful blend of acoustic and industrial has rarely been matched, with the exception of the excellent Tim Rutili-led band Califone. And like the best of Califone’s work, the Baptist Generals is inclusive of not only tattered folk from its previous incarnation but also contemporaries like Neutral Milk Hotel, while adopting slight international influences, giving the overall sound an “otherworld”-like affect. And opposed to its hailed predecessor No Silver/No Gold, which felt heavily cathartic, Jackleg is more introspective and unconventionally elegant.
The tender “Snow On the FM,” for example, is a spare, Bossa Nova-pop ballad, that provides the perfect blanket for Flemmons’ aching vocals and poetic lyrics. “Can you see the morning coming in? Can you feel me anywhere inside your heart?” he asks. “I try to make the shape of you; you’re just a shadow in my empty arms.”
According to Sub Pop’s PR statement, this is Flemmons’ “love” record. However, from the eccentric songwriter’s perspective, Jackleg serves as both a prism and a complicated weave, similar to a tree’s roots, of what that vision of love is — simultaneously beautiful, haunting, painful and graceful. Aesthetically, Jackleg adheres to the antiquated concept of an album. Songs flow from the “A Side” to the following flipside. And if you allow it, it has a lingering, haunting affect that sticks with you: a repeating guitar riff, the percussive brushing of a kitchen tool or a line such as “What do you want … for your heart?” And you may ask yourself that same question. Jackleg Devotional to the Heart can have that kind of effect.