Graded on a Curve:
The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, I Like Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience

Formed in 1984, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience thrived as part of the second generation of Kiwi bands on Flying Nun, a label standing as one of New Zealand’s finest cultural exports. Between ’86 and ’93 The JPS Experience (their most excellent name litigiously foreshortened by Mr. Sartre’s estate; hell is other people, indeed) completed three distinct full-lengths that chart a progression from the bedroom to a stab at the big time. 

Arriving a little later in Flying Nun narrative, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience never got the props routinely paid to core acts The Clean, The Chills, The Verlaines, and Tall Dwarfs. Extant for a decade, they initially consisted of Dave Yetton on bass and vocals, Gary Sullivan on drums, and Dave Mulcahy on guitar; Jim Laing added his six-string soon after. Informal jamming led JPSE to more structured practice sessions and then self-recording.

“Masked and Taped” was the group’s inaugural hiss-laden cassette demo of ‘85, placed in dog food tins (yup) and sold on consignment through indie shops; it was reissued on tape by Flying Nun in ’93. Its contents are intriguing, “Waste of Time” immersed in downtrodden rainy day sensitivity as the folky title cut recalls countrymen The Bats and predicts The Mountain Goats.

A pop inclination shines brightly on “Peaches and Cream” as “Suzi Lustlady” possesses a twist of neo-psych (think Robyn Hitchcock) and “Fatness” is a modest lump of acoustic, music-hall-esque eccentricity. “Fly” is the sole entry dating from 1987, with programmed rhythms helping to situate it as a proposition of its era.

On CD, Fire tucks “Masked and Taped” onto the end of disc one as the vinyl offers them on the accompanying download. Both formats begin with ‘86’s Love Songs, a record frustratingly existing in a bunch of different versions. Fire’s sequencing roughly follows the ’88 US release on Communion and along the way includes everything from the NZ pressing. In the process it nabs most of their self-titled ’86 EP and both sides of ‘87’s “I Like Rain” single.

All the ingredients in place, Love Songs brings JPSE out of the practice space and into the spotlight, with “Fish in the Sea” sporting intelligent songwriting and engaging execution. An appealing aspect remains Yetton’s vocalizing and bass playing, his unhurried emoting, and full-bodied notes helping to shape “Own Two Feet” as the guitars intermingle around him.

If to some extent uneven in the familiar manner of debut albums, Love Songs makes up for it with confidence and range; the psych-inclined “Firetime” adds xylophone and brass, “Grey Parade” is a swell nod toward 3rd LP Velvets, the energetic “Loving Grapevine” is a prime exponent of indie pop, and “Let There Be Love” is a gem of soulful chutzpah setting them apart from the Flying Nun pack.

Plus, “Transatlantic Love Song” is a melancholy-shaded beauty and the trifecta of “Einstein,” “All the Way Down” and “Jabberwocky” flashes some of the rock swagger informing their later work. Yes, “Crap Rap” has Yetton slinging syllables in the style implied by the title; while it’s not exactly great it’s more importantly not a bit embarrassing, a feat frankly amazing. In turn, the tune doesn’t disrupt the proceedings.

The ’87 45 is a study in contrasts. “I Like Rain” employs thrifty keyboard and flirts with twee as “Bo Diddley” (not a cover, more like an extension) is maybe the closest Flying Nun ever came to revamping bluesy ‘60s Brit Mod-rock. Out of left field, “Let That Good Thing Grow” actually manages to channel Alex Chilton’s smoother ’80s solo material, but “Flex” is my personal highlight of the early JPSE, first encountered via its video on the Atavistic’s Flying Nun VHS comp In Love with These Times.

Yetton’s bass is huge and his singing anxious (though not angsty), Sullivan’s drumming is limber and the guitars create superb tension that’s released in the choruses. More than anything else on Love Songs, it sets the stage for ‘89’s The Size of Food, an LP making it quickly apparent JPSE hadn’t been slacking in the honing of their collective talent.

Opener “Inside and Out” is instrumentally well-balanced and a potent instance of dark (but in no way gothic) pop elevated by the non-rudimentary drumming and assured guitar. “Elemental” is outstanding melodic post-punk from a point where the style had supposedly reached a point of exhaustion; the long fade is a plus. From there “Slip” dabbles in technological waters but keeps constant tabs on amp muscle while “Shadows” is a pretty yet robust stroll through guitar-pop territory. “Cut Out” could easily fit into a homemade assembling of C86 tracks.

“Mothers” chugs along with tough riffs and the extended “Get My Point” wields emotional spillage reminding me a tad of fellow Flying Nun outfit Headless Chickens. “Gravel” is a fine example of angular melodicism and “Thrills” mingles tandem vocals and a sonic attack noticeably heftier than the Flying Nun norm. “Window” retains the weightiness amongst substantial complexity in the writing and delivers The Size of Food a powerful closer.

Added to the CD is the “Precious” single from ’91, a three song affair effectively marking JPSE’s crossover into the decade’s music biz free-for-all. “Precious” is upbeat with bolder production that illuminates rather than blunts the positive qualities, and the same scenario applies to “Crush,” a ditty finding them hanging in the neighborhood of Flying Nun cohorts Straightjacket Fits. And if the album version of “Slip” waded in tech, this one takes a full-on bath, though the axes insist on making their presence known.

After a short acclimating introduction, ‘93’s Bleeding Star commences with “Into You” and a sound as big as on the prior EP, combining an advancing pop sensibility with waves of well-harnessed post-shoegaze distortion. This is adjusted somewhat on “Ray of Shine,” voice up front and the pop in the foreground amid plenty of sustain.

“I Believe in You” features lyrical sentiments more than a mite obvious but improves when the full band kicks in, and “Spaceman” and the title track underscore the level of influence from later-‘80s Jesus and Mary Chain. Between them is the crystalline strum and shimmering tones of “Still Can’t Be Seen” as “Breathe” flaunts instrumental additives and a production approach solidly dating it to its point of origin.

This essentially divorces it from the sound that put Flying Nun on the map, and some will say it breaks-up with what’s offered on Love Songs. But I wouldn’t be so strident; “Modus Vivendi” is reminiscent of the Mary Chain at their most ‘60s inspired while the lengthy “Block” is a jewel, its feedback opening and languid guitar-pop redirection basically stealing the show as it subtly builds to its finale. Displaying ample breadth, “Angel” provides Bleeding Star and JPSE’s existence with a fitting denouement

Fire rounds up late-period selections from the singles for “Breathe” and “Ray of Shine” plus the “Into You” EP. Outside of a kinda superfluous faux-Indian-tinged remix of “Into You” (the “Freegard Mix” is hot shit though) this stuff holds up quite well and in a few cases is slightly preferable (the sturdy melodic rock of “Up in the Sky” and “Kickback,” the heart-tug of “Hold Tight,” a sweet live take of “Own Two Feet”) to much of Bleeding Star.

The number of listeners who will equally value these three albums is nearly if not absolutely zero, but their return to print is a necessary and worthwhile endeavor. For those striving to home-document the steady wave of under the radar acts that made ’85-’95 such a wild musical period…well, that’s going to require a sizeable goddamn shelf. I Like Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience will be an integral part of it.



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