There are some musicians who are, for lack of a better way of describing it, in your face. There's nothing subtle about them and you know immediately whether you're going to like them or not. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. They are so subtle that you barely notice them but for some reason you can't get them out of your mind. There's something about what they do with their music and lyrics that keeps pulling on your heart and mind and compelling you to listen to them over and over again.
The first time I listened to Jason Collett's new release Reckon on the Arts & Crafts label, it felt like it had come and gone like a puff of wind. Something that had briefly ruffled my hair without having any lasting impact. Yet, the second time I listened not only did every song sound familiar I found myself singing along with the choruses on about half of them. Music that had seemed to run together all of sudden had become a series of distinct tunes with intricate arrangements. During the first listen there might have been a couple of points where something grabbed my attention. However the next time through I was amazed to hear songs performed in a variety of genres with lyrics both intelligent and moving.
While I don't know if this says more about my inability to listen than anything else, I do know that most of the time if a disc doesn't grab my attention the first time through I don't bother with it again. Yet that wasn't the case on this occasion. Collett had reached inside me, grabbed my attention and held on tight without me even noticing.
One of the way he manages to do this is his voice. It's not what you'd call powerful nor does it have any really distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out. Yet its compelling all the same. Old time folk and country singers appealed to their audiences because their voices were familiar. It was like listening to somebody you knew singing. Collett has something similar going on. When he sings it doesn't sound like he's up on a stage singing down at you from a great distance. Instead it sounds like he could be sitting in the chair opposite you in your living room or on your back porch.
There's also something about his voice which makes it memorable and unique. While he has the same high, lost/lonely quality, as Neil Young, his voice is in a lower register and has more of a tonal range than Young. However, what you'll really notice is his voice has character. You can tell by listening to him that he's experienced almost everything the world can throw at somebody. You can hear, heck you can almost see, both what's scarred him and what's given him hope. While there are times when he gets angry and times when he can be biting in his satire, you can hear he's neither tired of the world nor does he believe he's seen everything it has to offer either.
Of course you also hear a lot of this reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Now some of the place names mentioned won't be familiar to those outside of Canada, but the circumstances his songs describe are universal. There's the young woman in the ironically titled "Miss Canada" who moved from her home in the Maritimes when the fish stocks disappeared in the hopes of finding work in the oil fields and tar sands of the West. You have to wonder what work she thought there'd be for a woman out there.
"She takes off her dress/in a Fort MacMurray motel bedroom when the boys cash their cheques in the fields of Black Gold/Back home the cannery's closed and the fishing boats don't hardly fish no more/She came out West/hoping to make the best of it/It wasn't what she planned/but who can draw a line in the tar sands/money's a fast talking bird in the hand". Obviously this isn't a song about a beauty pageant contestant, but the young woman in the song is much more emblematic of life in Canada than anybody bearing the title of "Miss Canada" is liable to be.
To me the line "money's a fast talking bird in the hand" says far too much of what people are being forced to do in order to keep body and soul together. "Miss Canada" is the first of three songs in a row which are related to what politicians euphemistically refer to as an economic slowdown. It's easy for them to talk about the necessity of cutbacks and restraint, but they're not the ones who have to suffer for it. There's almost no pause between "Talk Radio" and "I Wanna Rob A Bank" which follow "Miss Canada". You have to wonder if the latter isn't the answer to the dilemma expressed by the person in the former.
I'm sure all of us have heard people call into radio shows and talk about their lives. Well "Talk Radio" is the voice of one of those people, somebody who's obviously at the end of their rope. "What is happening to me?/I have done all the right things/I'm a Christian, God fearing/ I work hard for my family/I have a gun and I believe in the values of the country/and my life is collapsing". Spaced over just a bit more then two minutes of music that's the song's lyrics in their entirety. Delivered slowly with only basic musical accompaniment it comes across as a cross between a lament and a whine. So it catches you by surprise when before the echoes of its last notes have even completely died away the crunching guitar and opening lyrics of the next song burst upon you.
When after the first chorus of "I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank" finishes and we hear; "I think it's only right, what's left don't even put up a fight/Someone's got to save the day/even Jesus would say it's okay to wanna rob a bank/ don't you wanna rob a bank?/Just like Jesse James/but I don't want to rob no train/ I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank." It's possible Collett is referring to Jesus throwing the money lenders from the temple, but it's equally possible we're hearing our good Christian with the gun from the previous song finding a solution to his problems. If that's the case I have to wonder how that would make anarchist types who would normally support knocking over a bank feel? Is it only okay if those doing the knocking over are "politically correct"?
On the surface Collett is expressing the frustration we all feel at the government bailing out banks while poor people are losing their houses. However I think he's also reminding us that everybody, not just the Occupy Wallstreet people, are feeling the same things. Think about the guy who genuinely believed in God, country and the flag who is all of a sudden forced to confront the fact the latter two really don't give a rat's ass for him. He's going to be a lot more angry and disillusioned than any so-called anarchist. He's going to have even more cause to want to knock over a bank than anybody else. Collett does a good job of forcing us to put ourselves in his shoes and realize his pain is every bit as real as everybody else's.
That's what I meant about Collett's stuff being subtle. There's layers of meaning in almost every song and they pick away at you, forcing you to listen to them again and again to try and track the train of his thoughts. Of course there are also songs like "Don't Let The Truth Get To You" which don't mince any words. Lines like, "the fools on television not taking any sides/modern journalism is just little tongue tied" in response to their reporting verbatim what the politicians have to say about the state of the world make it obvious what he thinks of television news. That's the sort of thing that will grab your attention and stick with you, but there's even more waiting to be discovered beneath the surface. Musically the disc ranges from folk, to rock to pedal steel country, but that's almost incidental to what's going on in Collett's head.
There's a wealth of ideas to be found on Reckon expressed in a myriad of ways. However instead of having to wade through reams of rhetoric to appreciate them, you only need to sit back and let them wash over you as gently and inexhaustibly as the tide. Jason Collett proves that intelligent songs don't have to either complicated or hard work for their audience. As a bonus the CD release of Reckon comes with a second disc, Essential Cuts, a retrospective of the best songs from earlier releases. If you buy the LP version you'll be given a code which will allow you to download the bonus disc. Either way its a great package of music from an exciting and interesting musician.
(Article first published as Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon on Blogcritics.)
(Originally posted October 2012)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.