On his debut album, WHY? multi-instrumentalist Josiah Wolf offers up a rare solo work with true legs of its own. His voice deep and straight at times and impossibly fragile at others, Wolf deals both in visual snapshots that illustrate the wistfulness of a mundane moment, and canny excavations of those poignancies that lie beneath the surface: tough triumphs, tougher truths, and outright failures. Wolf’s lean poems are set to an autumnal mix of warm folk and easy psychedelia played out (by Wolf alone) on guitar, vibes, kalimba, Hammond organ, bells, bass and drums to name a few. The end result is a sort of chamber pop minus the showy sweeps – virtuosity without the virtuoso – making Jet Lag as impressive in its subtle execution as it is a timeless, heartfelt listen.
“The Trailer and the Truck” begins the album like a lost thought on its way out of sleep. Notes freed by mallets bounce into the fuzzy foreground, bent chords stretch out from metal strings, then bundled bursts of drum-and- strum clear the way for Wolf’s voice. On “Master Cleanse (California),” he mulls over region and religion atop spare acoustics and a kaleidoscopic chorus where shimmering sounds move to an elastic tempo. One of the album’s best follows, “The Opposite of Breathing,” whose shuffling beat, cool tones and rich texture evoke late ’60s Greenwich Village. In that space, Wolf’s lyrics find him as Jet Lag often does: on the other side of divorce, hoping for the beatific wind that’ll blow him onward.
Throughout these songs, style and substance are treated with equal aplomb. The rolling bass and bright vocals of “The New Car” split the difference between The Zombies and Daniel Johnston. “Skull in the Ice” is lush in its instrumentation – blending bossa guitar, marimba, and tinkling keys – but sports Wolf’s most intimate singing yet. “The Apart Meant” rolls out a cloudy darkness, to which Wolf replies David Berman-like, “I guess it’s goodbye now/Did I guess wrong?/‘I guess it’s goodbye’/Is a broken man's song.” After such heaviness, the quiet Paul Simon folk of “That Kind of Man” feels like fresh air, while “Ohioho” is genuinely sunny, with Wolf following a different road with a different girl by his side.
Jet Lag came together following the dissolution of an 11-year relationship, and over the course of a move from California back to the Midwest, where Wolf grew up. It’s no surprise then, that the album contains such deeply moving works as the spooky, Cohen-esque “Is the Body Hung” and the warm, grand tribute to past love, “In The Seam.” But Jet Lag’s final two songs only look back long enough to prepare their author for newness. The stormy “Gravity Defied” conveys that knowing resignation that eventually comes, while on album-ender “The One Sign,” the breeze that Wolf was waiting on becomes a gale threatening to crash a loaded airplane. Rather than cower together or pray to God, however, the passengers stand to face fate head on. Wolf’s final lyric – “‘Heaven help me’ are just words / That time will make you say” – echoes out before the shelter offered by the song dissolves into the outdoors.
released March 16, 2010
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