YOU KINDA know something good is happening when a label with the rep and the stature of Drag City picks up a new artist and decided to begin a boutique imprint just for them.
Such is the case with E.R. Jurken and Drag City; the psych-folk riser, who’s wended a course through the school of life and into music finally, is set to release his debut album, I Stand Corrected, which business we’re about today, on Country Thyme.
E.R. himself then; who he? He drifted, we’re told, through this twenties and thirties, scrabbling a life together as so many of us do; never quite finding the slot into which his personal piece fitted. He’d been well into music, sure, had dabbled in its creation itself; things came to a sour head in the Bay Area of California, one life fracture after another rending 2012 untenable; so he sold up, the whole shebang including his instrument collection, and began a peripatetic period that trailed through New Orleans, Milwaukee and finally to Chicago. Home, of course, to a very, very fine musical tradition.
A friend, Gene, helped set him on a road back into the music; one guitar acquisition later and one meeting with Drag City’s Rian Murphy, and suddenly an album was in the offing. So the right place; finally, the right time.
He began demoing songs on his phone, turning out one a week; sessions at the legendary The Loft brought a complete realisation of those songs that came from brain to phone to … your record deck.
Rian Murphy and engineer Mark Greenberg added just a touch of rhythm; Paul Mertens, who’s worked with McCartney, Elton John, Stereolab, The Sea and Cake, Brian Wilson, provided exquisite horns.
It’s very much a record of two sides – and record it most definitely is, being vinyl only in its physical form, as is the current thinking; side the first presents as a suite of eight tunes, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, before gradually darkening towards and through the second side; the lyricism is singalong melodic but also opaque, just offering glimpses that something, somewhere, is awry: “the sweet sadness of a life spent waiting to be”.
Necessarily, although forging forward in the present, Ed mined into his lived experience to bring forth this record; hence the dark of his own annus horribilis, 2012. (Did you ever have one of those years? Darkly pivotal? Jeez …). And mine it he did, and he’s brought forth shining psychedelic folk gold.
It’s only right and proper that such a record should open with a fanfare, and so it does, although “Fanfare” is lower key luscious than you might expect; a simple strum with Ed taking a wordless melody line just built for brass and other baroque confection. And ain’t it cute, in a kinda Neutral Milk Hotel kinda way? It sets things up nicely for “Colonels Of The Morning”. It’s the kind of Anglophile psychedelic pop that might have soundtracked the beginning of the great comedown from Swingin’ London, a heavy trip in an alley off Carnaby Street, neckerchief hanging unknotted; it could be a lost track by maybe The Pretty Things after S.F. Sorrow, The Kinks before Something Else By … . Emily (at play) and The Mighty Quinn get namechecked in that briskly strummed first verse, Ed (for it is he) double-tracking the vocals and harmonising with himself over a curiously excellent song. That’s embedded down below too, so you can play it, why the hell not.
“Calendar”, all 63 seconds of it, well, beautiful, Ed singing out over a blissful baroque melody that twists and turns and frankly, has enough ideas for a song four times as long; and therefore entirely dovetails with Oscar Wilde’s maxim: “It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?”. You just have to savour it again, because it’s like the flash of a kingfisher along a river; beauty glimpsed. Just once more then.
“Maine Man” has a prime-era McCartney lazy excellence; you know, a song that came fully formed and effortlessly ace. Scrambled eggs and the like. Brass lends a sleepy mournfulness, and if, like me, you’re a sucker for a la-la-la or a bah-bah-bah, just holding a melody line without words (“Waterloo Sunset” of course being a paradigm) then you’re in. It just steps up towards a big baroque flourish, and your body gears for that moment, that explosion of melody and instead it just crests, just, then stops abruptly; to revive as a warm organ coda of la-la-las once more. As with “Calendar”, there’s a whole microverse of songcraft herein.
“Coliseum” sits perfectly at the point where psych-pop whimsy dateline London 1967 abuts Elliott Smith, and ain’t that a lovely thing, Ed’s falsetto ringing sweetly over a campfire strum that could brush up into full paisley orchestration but neither wishes nor needs to. “Give My Best To The Fox” sings of “milk and honey in my tea”, all couched in multi-tracked harmony. A little rough-edged it is, but he’s a hell of a singer, weaving and picking harmonic routes through a song Ray Davies would’ve offered to Pye for a standalone single to follow “Days”.
“Right Through” fair chugs with downstrokes, which Ed then picks up into a sweet swing, sorta Jonathan Richman meets powerpop on the acoustic guitar, “There’s gotta be a way to say / That your search for mercy ends today,” he sings, deft little electric guitar licks adding some rubber soul, a little organ colour over there. And all way, waay inside the three-minute mark. “You’re Coming With Us” finishes the first side in cracked, raw, harmonies, raw-throated and gracefully sad, pretty but clouded gunmetal grey; where are we going, who’s taking us where exactly now? We’re not told. And again it ends so quickly, point made in song. No 32-bar instrumental lead-out; and stop. So side A concludes.
Flip the disc, place the stylus carefully; and “Siren Song” opens the obverse: again a pocket psych wonder, this time a capella, various gathered Eds leading out into barbershop acid. “While you’re here we have a thing or two we want to share,” Ed sings, with portent, of others who also maybe had a plan. That dark hint, again; which flowers blackly in “John Doe”, named for the protocol of giving some humanity to an unidentified body. It’s a cute lullaby in 3/4, at least on the surface, Ed’s voice trembling with barely-soothed emotion. Dig deep into that voice and it’ll raise a tear … “they hold me down”, he sings at one point. Is it one of those points when life torrents through, the brain fizzes, intervention is required? There’s only a hint and that’s enough, don’t look too closely. It has this weird tremulous beauty, from which you could fall either way and fall far. There’s medics and 40 years of some darkness; a family affair … .
“Let Go The Coat” could’ve come out on 7″ in 1971 and it would’ve been the sort of tune that gets documentaries. The sadness, the deep pain, is in full flow now; he’s singing out now, that hook, “Ooh … there’s a little medication on the rise / Take the medication, take the medication.” It’s got a little electric piano, and there’s other imagery to puzzle over: “Now there’s trees along the coast, what once was shore … and his name is on the coat.” It’s almost exultant in its darkness, the pain palpable. His voice has a haunting slide to it, eerily beautiful in the way Bowie is circa Ziggy.
“On The Mark” stays in that vein, fuzzily recounting some moment of revelation, epiphany, passion in the more Biblical sense; the horrific precision with which you see see the world in slow and crystal-clear pain. Being on the mark isn’t always a great place to be, when your fears are confirmed. Ed finds himself “.. the last on the flight / We’ve got the pilot on the run.” A solitary drum marches the song forward, funereal; but the mood unexpectedly lifts for “Spectre”, especially given that title A little sunshine once more cautiously colours the melody, and in which we’re urged to “gather your wits … we’ve got a few more hours”. The strum, the brass, the backing vocal warmth, really brings out a Jeff Mangum quality; and particularly the way it concludes in wonkily wide-eyed, wordless wonder. It feels like we’ve more than glanced against the darkness and come through.
A trio of little shorts end the album. “Gone, Gone, Gone” has a beautiful harmony, rendered the more delicious by its slight raggedy aesthetic; in it, we find Ed returning to bed to rest, “and start to sort it out”. Again, it rings with an absolute understanding of British songwriting, 1966-69; languid, warm, exploratory, timeless. How a tune this good and fully realised fits into 111 seconds is a puzzle for greater minds than mine. “I Stand, Corrected”, the first piano-based tune on the album, brings the great Emitt Rhodes and Plush to mind, and manages to be even more brief; again wordless, chords paced just so, a little vibraphone perhaps in there too. And we end in “Under the Rose”, which is almost New Vaudeville Band timeless songcraft, demands a boater, hair cream, an antique mic. Maybe even a megaphone. It draws a neat full circle to the Granny Takes A Trip Edwardian psych of the album’s opener; and finishes in bright hope: “We’ll make a toast and take the most out of the sunshine.” Awww.
Well it’s quite the trip, E.R. Jurken’s first full missive into the world; it reveals quite the saddest tale at an angle, never telling, always hinting. It also shows an absolute grasp of songcraft, of melody, and an abiding love of British psych-pop and later American geniuses, mentioned above.
It’s also really amazing how many harmonic ideas Ed packs into such short songs, with so few even making that three-minute ideal radio single standard; melodic ideas firing off like fireworks, describing their flaming arc and falling away again and … gone. But cleverly every time they hit their mark and where a lesser songwriter might’ve milked then, Ed knows they’ve landed. He knows. “Has it made its melodic mark, lodged in your Brain? It has, so let’s move on; there’s plenty more where that came from, he seems to say.
There’s that darkness throughout the second side, the tale seen through a murky mirror; be glad you haven’t (well, hopefully haven’t) made that shadowy journey yourself; be more glad in a humanist sense that Ed has emerged into a better place – see, it is possible, tell yourself that too if you’re down, from the depths of despair to a record deal, fully creatively actualised.
Overall? An album with tragedy, an album full of psych-pop; I wonder if, like Liam Hayes did with Plush, he’ll push out from this opening More You Becomes You to the full-blown baroque realisation of Fed. It’d be great to see, on the strength of this.
A prediction for you; the way the narrative and the songcraft combine, I reckon I Stand Corrected, is pretty much nailed on to get its own 33 1/3 book one day into the future. One to savour; one to ponder, too.
E.R. Jurken’s I Stand Corrected will be released digitally and on vinyl on April 23rd; it’s up for pre-order now. Step this way, if you would.