After The Family Cat split in the mid 1990s, the band’s singer Paul “Fred” Frederick formed a new band, Pure Gain. He met Chris Cordoba through a mutual introduction from a mysterious third party (who no-one can quite remember), and together the duo have been releasing records as Jack Adaptor since their self-titled debut in 2004; J’Accuse! is the duo’s fifth studio album.
As a work, it’s a pretty eclectic one, ranging from the jazzy lightness of If Not Now When?, and the funky Zodiac Bones, through to the easy pop of Big Star paean Number One Record. It’s also pretty smart, both lyrically and musically; it’s extremely likely that it’s the only album you’ll hear this year with a closing track that references a French playwright and proponent of the theatre of cruelty. (Although do let me know if you it’s not…)
It begins with the wonderful one-two of “Number One Record” and Get it Right First Time. The former is a tribute to Big Star and all those other musical heroes who stopped too soon - “the ones who got away” - and screams radio play (or possibly Radio City) at you, but if we lived in a world where “Number One Record got regular air-time, we probably wouldn’t need a catchy pop song like “Number One Record” to remind us of the genius of Chilton, Bell, Stephens and co in the first place.
Get it Right First Time, meanwhile sashays, mambo-style, all the way through to its guitar and saloon piano outro.
Having set you up to sway, though, Frederick and Cordoba change the mood, and continue to do so through the rest of J’Accuse!. The curveballs start with The Circle. Subtle and dense, it’s also lyrically and melodically intriguing:
this foolish showing off will kill me
will kill me in the end
but pulling hateful faces
alienates my friends
the circle’s done
Paper Thin, meanwhile, pulls out a piano stool, lights up, and slips into confessional mode:
I’m in conflict with myself
ain’t no-one else gonna put me right
fighting with myself
ain’t no-one else gonna put it right
The song builds a head of gloomy steam before drifting away in a delicate and minimal piano outro.
It’s no surprise that an album influenced by Plush, Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield, and Penguin Cafe Orchestra should keep you on your toes, and to get to Paper Thin from The Circle, you have to navigate If Not Now When?, and Zodiac Bones: the former soulful, clean, jazzy; the latter dirty, funky and fuzzy. Popping out the other side you find yourself landing in the lap of the VU’s soft drums and Velvet Underground references:
You might say no but all of us are coming round -
hide the silver, drink the wine.
You might be listening to the Velvet Underground -
the first album for the thousandth time
Actually it would be only the first or second time. I’d really rather listen to VU, you know…
Wall Builders and Antonin Artaud send J’Accuse! out in formidable style. Wall Builders has possibly the album’s best instrumentation and melody, with a beautiful guitar solo and understated horns set up by the opening lyric:
I don’t know why way to turn -
left I drown and right I burn.
See the morning shift and yawn
like the day that I was born
on the wrong side of the wall.
Can’t see over it at all.
After the relative lightness of touch of what comes before it, the wailing and rough edges of Antonin Artaud come as a bit of a shock. At this point you can look back to the bouncy “Number One Record” and really appreciate the path J’Accuse! asks you to walk. “It’s such a cruel joke”, and “Can’t do anything to save the world” Frederick sings over a slowly forming maelstrom, a devastating guitar landslide.
This is beginning to feel like the age of the 90s comeback. So many of the indie artists from that time have returned in one way or another: The Stone Roses have toured and teased new material; Pulp toured and released one single (albeit not a completely new one). Suede and Inspiral Carpets meanwhile have gone further and released new albums, generally well received. And then there’s the lead singer turned solo artist: Martin Rossiter (Gene) and Andrew Montgomery (Geneva) for example.
And it’s these last two that seem closest to Jack Adaptor, in spirit at least. Not that J’Accuse! is a comeback album in any way, given that the duo have been recording together for years, but like Rossiter’s minimal almost entirely piano/vocal album The Defenestration of St. Martin, and Montgomery’s evocative Ruled By Dreams, this is an album that has left the past behind, and expanded its horizons. Indie is not the world.
You might not know and might not care that these songs share a creator with former indie chart hits like River of Diamonds and Steamroller, and while knowing that doesn’t change these songs except to add a pinch of historical interest and context, it’s great to hear old voices doing new things, and doing them this well, with a freshness and intelligence that old indie scene didn’t always allow for.