Jorma Whittaker – S/T

When a band’s leader strikes out on his or her own to record a solo album, the announcement of the group’s breakup usually isn’t far behind. Usually accompanied by a statement to the effect that the former band leader in question simply had a lot of songs that needed to be recorded as a personal statement, every armchair music fan knows that internal tension has necessitated those tracks be released outside of the band’s franchise. After all, if the album is actually good, the artist isn’t likely to return to his band until he has exhausted his solo resources. Just as often, though, the solo album manages to both alienate the band’s former fans and not resound with potential new ones, sounding a death knell for both the band that has launched said solo artist and the solo artist him or herself. Sure, it worked for Bjork, Elliott Smith, and John Fogarty, but for just as many (especially those whose body of work belongs to a band that doesn’t have enough name recognition to effectively launch their solo career), it can be a tragic misstep, a poor miscalculation that results in the former band leader crawling back to the schlubs he dumped to try to revive his career. And while I have been given no backstory to explain exactly why Jorma Whittaker has chosen to step away from his Marmoset bandmates, but the odds are long against his self-titled debut.
One of the more unjustly overlooked bands in indie rock, Marmoset have been turning out quality releases for a few years now, filling a dark anglophilic groove with their melancholic indie pop. To that extant, Whittaker doesn’t make much of a departure, resulting with an album that plays like a more streamlined and slightly idiosyncratic version of what he had done before. As such, we get the ominously spaced piano strikes of the groaning “Clocks in the Sun” and the funereal doom-pop of “Birds Are Falling Through the Sky,” a song with an organ melody so dreadfully ominous that it almost seems to suggest it’s a joke. Similar is the cover of the Everly Brothers “Man with Money,” here given a treatment that sounds more like a Kinks’ cover, no doubt intended as a morality play where a man takes to robbery to impress a woman but here offered as an apparent post-modern commentary.
Undergirded with uneasiness and resigned to confusion, there are full cracks in the album’s portentous façade. No doubt, despite the small cast of contributors, this is Whittaker’s album, as the icy dread that saturates the atmosphere is purely his creation. Still, his melodic gifts shake off a bit of the anxiety in songs like “Fall in Love,” a garage-pop anthem with a dreamily swirling arrangement, and the pristinely aching “Popcorn,” with little more than electric strumming carrying a melody with a precariously perfect catch in the middle. The aptly titled “Molly Melancholy,” founded on foreboding guitar reverb drones and spastic punctuating riffs matches the ethos of the precariously lumbering piano lines of the Sabbath-without-the-sludge uneasiness of the following “Favorite.” No matter how much light appears on the horizon, the sonic mood is ostensibly overcast.
What is surprising is how tossed off this album can seem at times, with nearly half of the songs clocking in somewhere less than two and half minutes. His songwriting, too, can tend toward both the obscure and the obvious, although his gift with an arresting turn of phrase remains intact. Somewhat like Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Whittaker has the ability to deliver lines with a truncated monotone and have them transcend the lack of emotion with which he imbues them to make them resound all the more personally.
So, the first solo release from Jorma Whittaker isn’t exactly a misstep nor is it a resounding confirmation. No doubt, should he choose to put Marmoset permanently on ice, a solo career is a viable option, as his understatedly dynamic songwriting is sturdily imaginative but a possible hard sell to those who like their rock to fall into neat genre categories. But to do so would be a shame, as Marmoset was a band with obvious potential that never quite delivered their sonic masterpiece, hardly having been around long enough to be remembered and lamented. In the end, whether the prelude to a solo career or simply an interesting detour, Jorma Whittaker has succeeding in expanding his options.