Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Joe Jackson

Reviewed on this page:
Look Sharp! - I'm The Man - Beat Crazy - Body And Soul - Big World - Laughter & Lust - Heaven & Hell - Rain

Let's see how far I can get writing about this bitter, balding, genre-jumping British New Waver without mentioning Elvis Costello... damn, blew it already! Okay, there are similarities, but Jackson is a university-trained pianist and arranger who's very concerned with credibility as a musician and composer, not very concerned with intellectualism, and fascinated with jazz and salsa rather than country and western. He also started recording a couple of years later than Costello, issuing his first solo single (after an apprenticeship in Arms & Legs) in 1978. His first two albums, released in rapid succession, helped British New Wave crack the US charts, but Jackson soon lost interest in the genre, soon turning to reggae, big band swing and Gershwinesque Good Music - which weirdly enough, charted even more successfully. After a couple of mature pop records, he headed into the irretrievably uncommercial realm of classical music, where he's remained ever since, with occasional backsliding into eclectic pop.

The conventional wisdom on Jackson is that he's a misguided talent: a first-rate tunesmith who's too smart for pop but not skilled enough for the ambitious range of genres he attempts. But really he's just inconsistent, "serious" music or not. He's so prolific and willful he can easily crank out a whole album based on a bad idea without realizing it's a mistake; by the same token, if he's inspired he can crank out a brilliant clutch of songs before the high wears off. For more details, The Joe Jackson Archive is an excellent resource. (DBW)

Arms & Legs - Mark Andrews, vocals; Graham Maby, bass.
Joe Jackson Band - Gary Sanford, guitar; Maby; Dave Houghton, drums. Sanford and Houghton left, 1980; Larry Tolfree replaced Houghton. Ed Roynesdal, keyboards and violin; Sue Hadjopolous, percussion, joined 1982. Joy Askew, keyboards and vocals, joined 1983. Gary Burke replaced Tolfree, 1984. Vito Zummo, guitar, joined 1984. Zummo left, 1989.

Look Sharp! (1979)
A New Wave classic, incredibly economical (not a single solo) and indelibly catchy, packed with small pleasures: crafty breaks and hooks (the loud country-western guitar licks in "(Do The) Instant Mash"), choruses repeating exactly the right number of times. The rhythms are reggae-informed though only a couple of tunes are actual reggae (the lyrically inane "Sunday Papers" and "Fools In Love"); he recalls the Police and early XTC more in the spacious, syncopated, always arresting mix of guitar bass and drums - Jackson rarely touches his piano. The spareness allows Jackson to pull off melodicism that would sound like AM corn with fuller production (the "no illusions" group vocal on the title track). Lyrically he focuses on straightforward romance ("Happy Loving Couples") - refreshing in New Wave, which sometimes seemed incapable of unironic anything. Each side ends with a revved-up near-punk rocker: "Throw It Away" is fabulously cathartic, while "Got The Time" falls flat. The hit single ("Is She Really Going Out With Him?") is actually one of the lesser tracks, spotlighting Jackson's weaknesses - a thin, wavery voice and a tendency to whine - rather than the guitar-powered energy most of the disc exudes. Produced by David Kershenbaum. (DBW)

I'm The Man (1979)
Continuing the no-frills approach of the debut ("On The Radio"), but there are problems on multiple fronts. The gender relations numbers aren't intriguing (the vacuous "It's Different For Girls"). The social statements are often vague or trivial ("The Band Wore Blue Shirts," probing the angst of the bar musician with the same acumen as Billy Joel's "Piano Man"). Except for the frisky "Friday" and the title track, a clever if snide look at consumer culture, nothing's as memorable as anything on the first record - "Kinda Kute" and "Amateur Hour" are downright dull. Still, there's a fair amount of engaging speedy rock with reggae overtones ("Don't Wanna Be Like That"; the lazily melodic "Geraldine And John"), and the taut arrangements are a continual source of joy. Produced by Kershenbaum. (DBW)

Beat Crazy (Joe Jackson Band: 1980)
A self-righteous reggae dub horror show. As with The Clash's Sandinista, Jackson uses reggae authenticity as an excuse for eschewing interesting melodies, arrangements and chord progressions, so the band just bashes out one five-minute rut after another ("Pretty Boys"). The lyrics are meant to be biting indictments of just about everybody - the middle class ("In Every Dream Home A Heartache"), the underclass ("Crime Don't Pay"), the punk scene (title track) - but he generally misses his targets, constructing images that don't resonate or coming to predictable trick endings ("Biology" eventually concludes that what's good for the goose is good for the gander). Weirdest of all is a Linton Kwesi Johnson-inspired spoken rant about "white niggers" and "black niggers" ("Battleground"). Though credited to the band, everything is written and sung by Jackson: "One To One" is the first in his line of saccharine ballads, with facile "personal vs. political" words and a delivery that's strikingly like his later "Breaking Us In Two." Uptempo ska-rockers "The Evil Eye" and "Someone Out There" are the only tunes with the vibrance of Look Sharp!. Soon Jackson abandoned pop music altogether, and this was the last hurrah for the original backing unit. (DBW)

Jumpin' Jive (1981)
An album of big-band swing covers. (DBW)

Night And Day (1982)
The source of the drippy, faux jazz, Adult Contemporary hit "Steppin' Out" and the drippier ballad "Breaking Us In Two," and apparently the rest of the disc is in the same mold. Keyboardist Ed Roynesdal and percussionist Sue Hadjopolous joined here, and have appeared on most of Jackon's albums since. (DBW)

Mike's Murder (1983)
A film soundtrack, with five vocal numbers and three instrumentals. (DBW)

Body And Soul (1984)
Another set of arch pop piano numbers with jazz affectations ("The Verdict," dominated by a brash saxophone) and snide, bitter lyrics ("Be My Number Two," which indulges in an overblown Springsteenian coda). In contrast to his peppy debut, the songs here average five minutes; least offensive but most witless are the two instrumentals, "Loisaida" and "Heart Of Ice" - at the other end of the scale is the smarmy single "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)." Weirdest of all, the record appears to be a secret tribute to Stevie Wonder: "Cha Cha Loco" quotes Wonder's "Don't You Worry Bout A Thing"; the ballad "Not Here, Not Now" uses the melody of "Lovin' You Is Sweeter Than Ever"; and "Go For It" uses the uptempo, staccato snare/rhythm guitar pattern and bass line of "Uptight (Everything's Alright)." So it's an unusual artifact, but not really worth listening to. About the best you can say is that the band handles the variety of styles (salsa on "Cha Cha Loco") so professionally you'd think Jackson was working with an army of session musicians instead of his usual small crew. Produced by Jackson and Kershenbaum. (DBW)

Big World (1986)
This time Jackson's in control of his eclecticism and bitterness, not controlled by them. An hour of new compositions recorded live, and his voice is a bit rougher and more personable than usual. The small band - Jackson, piano; Vinnie Zummo and Ted Leonard, guitars; Rick Ford, bass; Gary Burke, drums - bangs out pop-rock that's more varied and piano-based than Look Sharp but remains cohesive and potent ("Wild West"). The key, though, is the songs themselves, a spirited collection of satirical barbs ("Precious Time," "Right And Wrong") and world-weary romance ("Soul Kiss," with a sneering delivery worthy of Lennon; "We Can't Live Together"), set to music that's energetic (the Duane Eddy-style "Jet Set," the well-named "Tango Atlantico") and memorable. Even the scattered piano ballads are bearable (the likeably lean "Forty Years Ago"). If you thought - as I did - that Jackson disintegrated into Adult Contemporary schlock in the 80s, this is an ear-opener. Produced by Jackson and Kershenbaum. (DBW)

Live... 1980-1986 (rec. 1980-1986, rel. 1988)
A double-LP, with each side documenting a different band. As a result, you get three different versions of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" (DBW)

Will Power (1987)
Continuing the genre-jumping, this is an album of modern classical music. (DBW)

Tucker (1988)
Another movie soundtrack. (DBW)

Blaze Of Glory (1989)
Supposedly this was harder rocking than usual. (DBW)

Laughter & Lust (1991)
Largely a return to the high-energy rock of Jackson's first two records ("Obvious Song"), though there's also a blues-Latin hybrid (a cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well") and some sluggish sentimentality ("Trying To Cry"). But it's not very lively: the title refers to two things the album is sorely lacking. Some of the tunes sound familiar: the ballad "Drowning" is not unlike Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic." But when he's on, he's really on: the midtempo "Hit Single" is a brilliant comment both on romance and The Biz, though the cheesy 60s organ is a bit much; "The Other Me" is a sophisticated pop song that makes good use of a complex, multipart arrangement. Produced by Jackson and Roynesdal; the band is Maby, Askew, Hadjopolous, Tom Teeley (guitar) and Dan Hicky (drums - Burke sat this one out). (DBW)

Night Music (1994)
Classical music again, with backing vocals from Peter Cetera. (DBW)

Heaven & Hell (Joe Jackson & Friends: 1997)
How pretentious can you get? A neo-classical tribute to the seven deadly sins, with a slew of guest vocalists including Jane Siberry ("The Bridge (Envy)") and Suzanne Vega ("Angel (Lust)"). But wait, don't answer yet: there's also a quote from 19th Century philosopher Madame Blavatsky. Now how pretentious can you get? It might have helped if Jackson had written some decent melodies - I think someone forgot to tell him that "serious" isn't supposed to be synonymous with "boring" - and there's not nearly enough development to justify all the seven- and eight-minute running times. The string section, led by Mary Rowell, are impressive players, but they're mostly just garnish. Some of the tracks are clearly pop songs underneath their classical drag - "Passacaglia/A Bud And A Slice (Sloth)" - and he would have been better off leaving them that way. The one good thing you can say is, he's not afraid to get weird: "Tuzla (Avarice)" combines a Cool Jazz rhythm section with soaring operatic vocals and Radio Croatia broadcasts; "Right (Anger)" has two trap drummers plus Jared Crawford on plastic buckets. Produced by Jackson and Roynesdal. (DBW)

Symphony No. 1 (1999)
Yep. The liner notes contend that this is a symphony despite the fact that there are only ten instruments - as if any of the rest of us gave a crap - but Grammy folks didn't think so: they awarded it Best Pop Instrumental Album. (DBW)

Summer In The City: Live In New York (2000)
A trio recording, with Maby and Burke. He skips "Going Out With Him," "I'm The Man," and "Steppin' Out," but does include a number of his pop tunes together with standards, both pop ("Eleanor Rigby") and jazz ("Mood Indigo"). (DBW)

Night And Day II (2000)

Two Rainy Nights (2002)
Recorded live in early 2001, heavy on Night And Day II material. (DBW)

Volume 4 (Joe Jackson Band: 2003)

Afterlife (Joe Jackson Band: 2004)
YALA (Yet Another Live Album). (DBW)

Rain (2008)
A trio record - the leader on piano and vocals, Maby on bass and Houghton on drums - and with nothing to hide behind, Jackson comes up with a terrific, wide-ranging collection of songs. There's everything from mournful balladeering ("Solo (So Low)") to jazz ("The Uptown Train") to Look Sharp!-ish uptempo New Wave ("Good Bad Boy"), so the record never falls into a rut, and the compositions are individuated and strong (the gently swinging slice of pop "Too Tough"). Nothing's dull: the worst you could say is that some of the songs are less than memorable ("Rush Across The Road"). His voice is surprisingly flexible, making nice use of falsetto ("Invisible Man"), and the band adeptly handles the many tempo and mood changes ("Citizen Sane")... despite some thin lyrics, this is my favorite Jackson record since his debut. (DBW)

The Duke (2012)
"Not another George Duke tribute album?" you're thinking, but no, it's Duke Ellington who's saluted here. The word "eclectic" is egregiously overused, but how better to describe a guest list ranging from Steve Vai ("Isfahan") to Regina Carter to Sharon Jones ("I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues/Do Nothin' 'Til You Hear From Me") to Iggy Pop ("It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)")? (DBW)

Steppin' out?

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