Dan Jones – One Man Submarine

Dan Jones
One Man Submarine

Getting straight to the point, One Man Submarine is a good album that’s more than a little light. Richly produced, with some nice sounds thrown behind the basic instrumentation, it sounds exciting. Jones has a pretty unique, love-it-or-hate-it voice (it’s a more cream puff version of Lindsey Buckingham), and he and his band deliver some pretty good straight-ahead rock and roll. Jones sounds to have good taste (Bob Mould, Daniel Johnston, and Yo La Tengo sound like recent reference points) and a decent idea of how to incorporate quirks to keep his songs from totally blanding out. He has a talent that could turn a fair number of people on. This doesn’t sound like the standard, dull vanity project.
Jones has a pretty natural feel for effective melodies and some of the songs – “Death’s Head Bar,” “Walkin’ Blue,” and “One Man Submarine” in particular – feel instantly recognizable. He also has a pretty good ear for sounds and parts that help liven up the songs. There’s a pretty tangible amount of excitement that is conveyed by the songs and the band’s playing on them, and that’s a good place to start; a rock album without that wouldn’t last for long. The album, which is pretty heavily produced, doesn’t sound dull or labored-over. Again, not an easy feat.
What’s missing, though, is that intangible thing, that thing that casts simple, plain stated declarations in a light that shivers your spine. Think of the way Ira Kaplan sings, “The way that it feels when you laugh is like laughing / The way that it feels when you cry is so bad” on “The Crying of Lot G,” and that’s what I’m talking about (the riff from Jones’ “One Man Submarine” even sounds a bit like “Cherry Chapstick” mixed with “Splish Splash”). It’s what Jones seems to be going for (“Walkin’ Blue is “a love song for sweet routine”), but too often his lyrics come off as non-sequiturs or in-jokes or sometimes just pretty silly. For the most part, they don’t really feel like they’re headed anywhere. All of the lyrical turns are out-of-nowhere and seem to have little to do with what came before. That’s fine, it’s just that the songs seem to adhere to a pop structure; the music is circular but the lyrics tend to fly off on tangents. Some songs, particularly “Joy” and “Sweet Sophia,” seem to have stories to tell but the telling is so muddied that you’re not quite sure how they end-up the way that they do. Not that it’s the singer’s job to lead us around, it’s just that too much of the album is a one-sided conversation with someone who’s stories are pretty damn hard to follow, and it undermines the overall effectiveness of the album. His stories about and observations on some of the more mundane details of everyday life (air conditioned movie theatres, waitresses and their dogged eared books, record stores) don’t really ring all that true. All of this serves to be a bit alienating; we feel no connection that draws us closer in.
A lot of this sounds pretty damn negative, and in my heart I’m not trying to write a bad review. The disc is far from uninteresting, and that’s saying a lot. Jones most likely has a pretty good album waiting in him. It’s just tough to ignore the clunker lines that I keep hoping will reveal a deeper meaning on multiple listens but so far aren’t. The music, though, and the overall album still sound good after a few spins. The album’s second half to seems to be weighed down in particular, or it could just be that as the album plays on you become more sensitive to its shortcomings. Or perhaps there isn’t supposed to be a deeper meaning and I just need to lighten up. Still, too much attention seems to have been paid to the way that the album sounds for me to believe that these songs are meant to be plain-old barroom rockers or throwaway stream-of-consciousness rants. Jones is clearly a pretty talented guy with a healthy record collection and a good idea of how to translate his influences into his own music. His aspirations are high, and if it’s easy to knock him it’s because he’s hanging himself out there more than most. He’s way ahead of most bands trying similar things, he’s just not all the way there yet.