Jana McCall – Slumber

Jana McCall

Spring is a wonderful time. Those three months between the March 20 and June 21 are positively brimming with the clichéd stirrings of the renewal of life, snow melting away, winter jackets coming off, and bedroom windows opening to the cool night breezes and sounds of growing foliage. And a new batch of spring-like pop albums usually arrive, too. The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Pernice Brothers’ The World Won’t End and Of Montreal’s Gay Parade were all spring albums that typified the feeling of the season in sound. But every once in awhile you get an album like Jana McCall’s Slumber that doesn’t feel like spring at all. In fact, Slumber is more like an inch of snow on the last day of spring. And it’s absolutely wonderful.
Her second solo album, this former Seattle grungie retains much of the genre’s gloomy intensity while managing to sidestep its more clichéd tossle-cap trappings. Backed by the like-minded three-piece of Ruby Doe, McCall writes songs equally loaded with drama and pain, with brooding chord progressions and haunting vocals dressed up with strings and agitated guitars to perfectly accent her aching ethos. In the process, she finds the perfect balance between melody and emotion, never allowing either to overwhelm the other in the creation of a finely crafted set of vaguely familiar tunes. Creepy waltz-time tributes to past tragedies like “Still” and “Falling Again,” the first nicely overlaid with the strings, the second driven by a repetitive processed snare beat, offer compelling entreaties to revisit the disappointments of the past. Haunting siren songs, with sentiments like “I know you know who I am – come to me,” arrive with an unsettling authority, as if avoiding their beckon would be nearly impossible.
Much like Radiohead or Patti Smith, McCall seems to find extra gears in her songs, twisting them into complexly dissonant shapes yet retaining a consistently appealing package. She can work with absolutely suffocating heaviness, with squealing sheets of guitar fuzz falling like driving rain over a creepy undertow of cello-populated tracks like “Bloodlines,” or she can write elegantly pristine ballads like “Clary” – all are marked by an unmistakably melancholy melodic quality. At times, the melodies of “Grace of the Peak” and “Echoes” almost seem to have cousins in the Beatles’ catalogue, with the latter sounding like an almost perfect melding of the intensity of Lennon’s “She’s So Heavy” with the wistful “Across the Universe.” At any rate, her melodic pedigree finds good company.
The only possible drawback to an album this singularly powerful may be the lack of variation, as most of the songs are built of very similar elements. But when an album is this uniformly solid, you have to overlook such quibbles. Jana McCall’s exploration of existential angst in lyric and melody is made all the stronger in light of its startlingly intense focus. It ultimately may be an album better suited for a cold walk on a gray winter day than for a wet spring hike, but Slumber is an album you certainly won’t want to sleep through.