Graded on a Curve:
J. Graves,
Marathon

On the debut album by Portland, OR’s J. Graves, it’s Jessa Graves who writes the songs, sings them and plays the guitar, while the bass is handled by Barret Stolte and the drums by Dave Yeager. J. Graves is indeed a band, though the choice of moniker drives home the namesake’s input and sheer commitment. The style can be accurately tagged as a post-Riot Grrl state of affairs, but with strength of songwriting and emotional range that validates the comparisons to Sleater-Kinney and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Another way of putting it is that Marathon isn’t always raging; far from it actually, but the LP is consistently heartfelt, which brings us back to the matter of commitment. The album, self-released, is out now.

Jessa Graves’ story includes a prior outfit, Hellokopter, who worked hard and made progress and just at the brink of a major breakthrough and reward, fell apart as bands often do. If a not uncommon occurrence, the fallout from this situation can still be devastating to those involved, which is exactly what happened with Graves; the result was that she didn’t play, write songs or sing for three years.

But in 2016 she wrote “Leap Year,” which after three more years is one of Marathon’s ten selections. The trajectory from that initial song to this finished album wasn’t easy, however. There were serious health issues in 2017, with the chest x-ray adorning the record’s cover deriving from that very situation. Those difficulties necessitated major life changes, as she quit smoking and in 2018, ran a marathon.

Hence the record’s title, though there is a deeper significance; in an article in the Portland-focused website Vortex, Graves described the completion of this album as her second marathon. And there is an additional layered meaning, as the same article refers to the video she made for the record’s Kickstarter where she observed how the x-ray showed her insides and then added that “my music is everything that is inside of me.”

I’m sure a multiplicity of singers and players could make this very same assertion, but Marathon’s opener “New Favorite” puts it right at the forefront of the listening experience while smartly leavening it with hard rocking precision and an even craftier use of silence. These qualities are retained in “Doctor” as Graves’ vocals proffer a belter’s soulfulness and with nary a trace of strain or bluster. And if emotional, the record eschews becoming a big soppy puddle of feelings.

Furthermore, given the mention of those health concerns above, the title of “Doctor” might lead one to assume the track is fiercely autobiographical. And that’s not wrong, but she does a fine job of avoiding the artlessly blunt, which nicely positions these songs for repeated play; indeed, doing just that reveals Marathon as a sturdy grower, with “Unlove” blending anthemic velocity and cranky riffs.

Opening with guitar progressions that dial down the intensity a smidge, “Eleven” posits a redirect into the proximity of solo territory, though as the drumming kicks in, the rock heft endures, and that’s a big plus. But along the way, Jessa Graves’ writing continues to tap into precedent without succumbing to hackneyed form moves, and that’s even better.

Not every song hits the same plateau of worthiness, reminding that for all the struggling Marathon is still a debut, but even the lesser cuts are energetic and structurally cohesive, which is the case with the consecutive “Over and Over” and “Chapters.” But then “Leap Year” delivers a fine blend of the hard-charging and the contemplative; knowing it as the song that got her back onto creative course surely adds to its appeal, but it’s ultimately the fiery vocal/ instrumental combo that situates it as one of the record’s standout cuts.

“Used To” underscores Graves’ aptitude for pop songwriting, though subtly so. Through it all the band’s punch is calibrated somewhat, but they rachet up the heaviness for the final two numbers. “A Cabin” can still be assessed as catchy as Graves hits a few high notes and bears down on her axe, but it’s in “Animal” that the repetition of riff and rhythmic propulsion hits its apex. It concludes the record on a high note.

While short of a masterpiece, Marathon is impressive for a debut, with the influences that helped shape it detectable but not overbearing. Most importantly, Jessa Graves navigates her personal terrain (“everything that is inside of me”) as subject matter in a manner that is enlivening rather than enervating. I’m hoping she keeps honing J. Graves’ trio attack, for it serves her music well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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