J-P McGill - Against The Sea
2008, Pipeline Music
New York City-based singer/songwriter J-P McGill makes music for himself. In a refreshing and unusual turn, McGill creates music he likes without regard for what the laws of commerce or fashion might prevail upon. With roots in Chicago Blues and folk, McGill has dallied in styles from around the world, and all the chickens come home to roost on his latest album, Against The Sea. McGill uses the sea as allegory for the human condition. Part Don Quixote and part Arthur Miller, McGill's subjects rail against their own personal constructs in a constant struggle to transcend themselves and become who they already are. It's a classic tale of suffering as a means to finding paradise, a la Siddhartha. Throw in the coloring of Cape Breton shanties, Afro-Cuban, Latin, Blues and even a touch of Southern European flavor, and you have a dynamic package that ranges from tuneful to frightening, but never fails to be compelling.
Against The Sea opens with Moby Told Me, a disjointed bit of rock noise that is almost as charming as it is sonically disturbing. McGill has taken elements of Electronica and Lo-Fi Garage styles and melded them into something you can't quite comfortably listen to but don't want to look away from either. McGill keeps up the madness on Psycho Sub Samba, but this time he battens down a Samba beat with a bit of folk survivalist madness. Better Man heads straight for the gutter blues, Big Rude Jake style. Listening to Against The Sea all the way through, I am thoroughly convinced that J-P McGill has a tuneful if rustic voice, but a fair amount of the time he eschews a tuneful sound for a rough, melody-wary vocal style not uncommon in folk/blues circles. The result is an anachronistic sound that purports to be more amateur and rough than it really is.
Walk On Water is a prime example of this rough, raw sound. McGill's relationship with a distinct melody line here is tenuous at best; the arrangement strongly minimalist. What the song does have is force of personality; a primal je ne sais quoi akin to a car wreck. McGill goes a bit cabaret on The Dutchman, accompanied by a reserved piano and quiet percussion. One Note Float returns to the Electronica-gone-Garage sound we heard on the opening track, and borders on difficult listening at times. Fish And Bird is a love song that is surreal, and lends itself to the general atmosphere of the album. The difficulty is that the longer the album goes on the more difficult a listen it becomes. What was charming for a few songs can be wearing on the listener. By this point in the album I found myself questioning my initial assessment that McGill can sing musically when he wants to.
Lyrically, Against The Sea is raw; occasionally jarring. Musically McGill is very inventive, mixing styles in unusual ways that run the gamut from appealing to bizarre and disturbing. In this respect Against The Sea is a compelling listen, as you can't be sure what's going to come next. A decent whiskey voiced vocalist could do wonders with these songs, which lend themselves almost to a bardic style. Once in a while J-P McGill throws us a curve, like on Ken & Catherine, giving us a little roadhouse Rock N Roll and a vocal that's spot on musically and stylistically. Even The Rosa Maria finds McGill digging into his more musical side for a great sea chantey, but it does take some listening fortitude to get there.
J-P McGill has done one of two things with Against The Sea. He's either delivered a highly artistic and anachronistic album or he's offered up a commercial project with little or no demographic. In fact, the two positions aren't incompatible. The question comes down to whether the style here is intentional or just an accident of his persona as an artist. I don't have the answer to that question, but I can tell you that there are some bright moments here as well as some dark, hard to listen to moments. There are some songs on Against The Sea that could be interpreted in wonderful and compelling ways by the right artist or personality, and there will be a niche market for this album, but it's not widely commercial, and a lot of listeners won't get through more than a couple of songs. In the end, J-P McGill sounds a bit like a hypothetical cross between Shane McGowan and Phoebe Buffay. It's interesting and compelling, but I am still not sure whether I enjoyed it or not.
Rating: 3 Stars (Out of 5)
You can learn more about J-P McGill at www.jpmcgill.com or www.pipelinemusic.net. You can order a copy of Against The Sea at Amazon.com.