Graded on a Curve:
The Happy Jawbone Family Band,
Tastes The Broom

Vermont: if it were up to me, I’d kick it out of the Union. Personally I can’t think of a single reason why you’d want to go there, unless you’re a ski nut and your idea of a good time is to plummet down a steep slope on a skinny pair of sticks, hit a snow-covered root, sail 50 yards ass over ankles into a maple tree, before slowly sliding, flat as a cartoon character, down said maple tree into a 9-foot snowdrift, there to slowly succumb, every bone in your body broken, to hypothermia.

Ah, but I hear you saying, Vermont gave us Phish! Yes, and we’ve been frantically searching for the returns desk ever since. Fortunately, the Live or Die State has given us one great thing, and I’m certainly not talking about nutball Mormon patriarch Joseph Smith. No, I’m referring to the Happy Jawbone Family Band.

The Brattleboro-based psych-folk outfit produces raw, shambolic, and defiantly lo-fi songs that sound every bit as shaggy as Scooby Do’s stoner sidekick. But HJFB is no free-form psychedelic band. Its sound may be ragged, but it knows how to do what all great bands do—namely, write great songs. A subversive cadre of covert popsters, Happy Jawbone Family Band creates songs that are anything but the tossed-off affairs they appear to be upon first listen.

Info on the Happy Jawbone Family Band is hard to come by, because it takes great delight in cloaking itself in absurdist mystery. Take the band’s “biography” on Facebook: “We were all born in a bathtime suicide mission. Nothing was left but a pair of sunglasses that are still bleeding to this day. At the stroke of midnight you can hear them sing out of desperation.” One thing I do know is that it members met (aptly enough) at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. (I attended said school for a semester, before being kicked out for being corporeal.)

I also know its members include Francis Carr, Luke Csehak, Elspeth Bourne-Kebbell-Csehak, Bobby Csehak, David Lineal, and (occasionally) Julia Tadlock. But after that things get sketchy—real sketchy. I can’t tell you who sings lead or who plays what or even what instruments are being played in the first place. Nor can I say with any certainty how many LPs the Happy Jawbone Family Band has released since its 2009 debut, On the Wrong Side of the Candy Machine (about which the band wrote, “It has 40 songs and even less talent!”), although I would guess about 10. I wrote the band seeking definitive answers to these questions. but have yet to receive a reply. And I suspect that when I do I’ll be told that Carr plays horse with no name, Lineal plays tattered copy of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, and so on. This is one band of Merry Pranksters who take Oscar Wilde’s quip that “Life is far too important a thing to ever to talk seriously about” very seriously indeed.

2013’s Tastes The Broom is a compilation, released in advance of the band’s debut on new label Mexican Summer, 2013’s excellent Happy Jawbone Family Band, which includes such wonderful tunes as “D.R.E.A.M.I.N.,” “That Green Light,” and “I Have to Speak to Rocky Balboa.” Tastes The Broom offers but a thin sampling (only 11 songs) of the seemingly 400,000 songs HJFB has recorded over the course of its relatively short career. How the band managed to whittle this monumental body of work down to less than a dozen tunes is beyond me. That said, I wish they’d seen fit to include “I Hope It Works Out Bay” and “My Affectionate Eye Disease,” to say nothing of “Fresh Gash.”

Tastes The Broom opens with “Now Everybody Rock Like You Got AIDS.” A great lo-fi freak-for-all that opens with a baby talking gibberish, it rockets along to a great garage beat and the sound of lots of frantic and largely unintelligible vocals and some impossibly distorted guitars. And the guitarist plays two, count ‘em, two real gone solos before the song slows at the end for the band to sing some careless “la la las,” then take the song out in a fuzzy caterwaul. And if I have one complaint with Tastes The Broom, it’s that it doesn’t include more rockers like this one. The slow and lovely “Fireflies Made of Dust” is pure magic, what with its sad melody, complex (but hard-to-make-out) group vocals, and strange keyboards, to say nothing of some carefree whistling and the plaintive electric guitar that keeps the beautiful melody on track. It ends with some sweet violin and a slow and warbling chiming that is as lovely as it is dissonant.

“At the Hotel Double Tragedy” is a tinkling, ragged thing: the male lead repeats, “At the Hotel Double Tragedy” while the female vocalists repeat, “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah.” Meanwhile an instrument I can’t identify—toy piano? Some type of percussion instrument?—plays an insistently chipper riff that runs throughout the song. No drums, no bass—just that strange chirping, ponging noise and the singers nonchalantly (they don’t sound like they’re trying very hard) doing their thing. And it works!

“Fistful of Butter” is a simple and pretty little number that has the male lead singing in a nasal voice, “In the blink of an eye,” which the female vocalists repeat, while a neato repetitive guitar riff and some simple drumming keep the beat. This is garage rock with a Ford Pinto in the garage, painted in psychedelic colors and bearing a sticker that reads, “LSD Not STP” on the bumper.

“There’s Too Much Blood in the Attic Tonight” is a tremendous tune, slow and insistent thanks to the great horn section, some chiming guitar, and the group vocals, which sound like they were recorded from a great distance, say Bolivia. The vocalists repeat, “It’s not right/I said it’s not right, tonight,” and, “I know I’m bad at vacations/I can never seem to get them ri-i-i-ght,” and what I love best about this tune is its righteous drone, which is provided by the tuneless singing and the fact that the band can’t be bothered with choruses or bridges or any of that high-falutin’ rock nonsense.

“Book of Fire” is jauntier, thanks to its perky guitars and the male vocalist, who sounds flat, per usual, but almost animated. At about the mid-point the song breaks for some nonsense syllables, then some big drum crash ups the volume before the male vocalist sings, “I wish you could see just how/I’ve become so soft/I am reverting to… sand” and the song closes in another barrage of nonsense syllables.

“The Great Thimbleful” is a mid-tempo tune driven by a sinister guitar riff and what sounds like one very oddly tuned piano, and opens with a long instrumental before the male vocalist sings, “I could not cry a thimbleful/I fed my heart to a timber wolf,” while the guitars play odd chords and that piano plink plink plinks in accompaniment. “I left my heart/In a silver case/And drowned it in/A frozen lake,” he sings, as the song plinks and chimes along, and like “There’s Too Much Blood in the Attic Tonight” this one dispenses with all that bothersome rock garbage like bridges and chord changes and the like.

“Martian Santa” comes from a free Christmas album the band put out, and which also included such great Yuletide classics as “Deck the Halls with Gasoline (Trad.)” and “Vodka Seinfeld the Jewish Reindeer.” Anyway, “Martian Santa” is a fast-paced tune featuring a guitar riff that recalls early Guided by Voices. Then the vocalists come in and sing a raggedy and cheery round while the guitarists come back in playing that GVB guitar riff and the drummer keep the great beat going. Towards the end the volume goes up, accompanied by some weird space noises and feedback, before the song trips over its feet and falls down.

Closer “Don’t Tread on the Museums of Your Youth” is a sunny mid-tempo vocal-fest with a happy-making chorus of nonsense syllables and tambourine and guitars tuned to the key of inexplicable joy. Towards the end the song really gets shaggy, with the musicians dropping out and the vocalists singing some nonsense. Then the guitars return to play some really raw shit and somebody plays a rattle while the male vocalist sings “I’d sell my soul for a cigarette” and “I sold my eyes for a piece of roast beef” before letting out a great off-key cry followed by some “Woo woo woos” and one dissonant guitar fadeout. And that’s it.

It’s a wonderful thing to dare to sing and play like you just don’t care, which is to say I love musical primitivists as much as I love anything in this crazy, fucked-up world. But even the wildest and woolliest primitivists need strong hooks to hang their Finnish knit reindeer hats on, and strong songs to build strong bones and bodies.

Take Phish, whose inability to write a real song led to years of rough living in the Vermont woods, sucking maple sap straight from the tree, creepy crawling cranberry bogs, and spearing the occasional moose for sustenance. And cannibalism. Remember John Loach? Phil DeFeo? Of course you don’t. Phish ate them. But the Happy Jawbone Family band won’t ever be reduced to cannibalism, or even worse to becoming a jam band, because the Happy Jawbone Family Band writes songs that are every bit as great as their “we could do it right, by why bother?” performances of said songs.

Which is why I love them the way your average Phish Phanatic loves his 15-year-old Birkenstock sandals, the difference being that the Happy Jawbone Family Band won’t make your feet stink.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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