However, the buzz on the dude just kept growing. Over and over, from people whose music tastes I respect, I kept hearing about how good his stuff was. I decided to try again, thinking that maybe the problem was that I heard one of his more recent albums first. I downloaded the Reatards album "Grown Up Fucked Up" and listened to it. It was more like what I expected--snotty garage punk--but it wasn't exactly a shining example of such a thing, and as a result, while I didn't delete it, I didn't listen to it more than a time or two before shifting it into a less-traveled section of my hard drive and forgetting about it all over again.
The thing that finally got me was when I downloaded the aforementioned new single on Matador. I post on a couple of different mp3-sharing message boards, and one of them has several posters who are very on top of the DIY hardcore/punk singles scene. They're always posting new 7 inches by bands that I haven't heard or, sometimes, even heard of, and writing descriptions of them that make them sound like the weirdest things I'll ever hear. Sometimes I download these records and sometimes I don't, but they always pique my curiosity. When one of those kids posted the new Jay Reatard single on that board, my nagging curiosity made me download it. I wanted to give the guy another try, because if nothing else, so many people whose tastes I respected love his music. I couldn't help but feel like there was something I might not be getting about it, that maybe I'd like it if I listened to it enough.
Sure enough, "See Saw" and "Screaming Hand", the two songs on the single, clicked for me immediately. From first listen, I loved both of them. But not because they were the sort of garage punk I expected--if anything, they were even less like that than the previous Jay Reatard stuff I'd heard. Both songs had an acoustic rhythm guitar track placed prominently in the mix, and they were both incredibly poppy, to an extent that I didn't remember any other Jay Reatard-related songs I'd heard being. The recording was very lo-fi, sounding if anything like it was recorded on a four-track in a bedroom. Thin bass sound, fuzzy, almost distorted drumming, and staticky vocal tracks made me think of all the Guided By Voices and early Pavement singles that I loved when I was in high school in the early 90s and the lo-fi revolution was in full swing. Both songs are every bit as catchy as those old GBV singles, too. "See Saw" has a great part halfway through where it breaks down to acoustic guitar strumming and Jay singing, "She creeps me out. She crept me in again." It only sort of makes sense but it's super catchy, especially when the rest of the instruments (I would say "band" but I'm pretty sure Jay, a true solo act, plays everything himself) come back in and turn this bridge into an anthemic final chorus. The way the distorted electric leads mix with acoustic strumming on this final chorus is the kind of thing that too high a recording quality could suck the life out of, but as it is it works perfectly. "Screaming Hand" is the B-side of the record, but there's no loss in quality between the A and B sides. "Screaming Hand"s chorus is just as catchy as "See Saw"s, and even though it's over more quickly and has a more static song structure, it's just as likely to get stuck in your head all day.
So, once I heard that single and loved it as much as I did, I had to figure out if there was more to this whole Jay Reatard thing. Certainly "See Saw" and "Screaming Hand" sounded different from "Blood Visions", his most recent album, and it was entirely possible that the poppy/lo-fi direction of that single was a new approach for him, and I wouldn't like any of his older material. However, I had to check it out, just in case. Through the good graces of the internet, I immediately located "Blood Visions", which I figured I'd give another shot, as well as several of the singles he'd released over the last couple of years (since beginning to bill himself as a solo artist). The last single before "See Saw"/"Screaming Hand", "I Know A Place"/"Don't Let Him Come Back", was if anything even more acoustic-based and poppy than "See Saw", but while I liked the A-side a lot, the B-side seemed a bit wanting. If anything, I think the problem with it is that it doesn't have that same kind of fuzz charge to it that "See Saw" and its B-side had; it's too poppy and not punked-up enough. That said, there's definitely a pattern in Reatard's more recent singles, one that makes me think Jay has indeed discovered the early 90s lo-fi power-pop single revolution, as well as perhaps some of the late 70s/early 80s Rough Trade bands--like the Swell Maps, say--who were inspiration for a lot of those early 90s acts. As far as I'm concerned, this can only be a good thing.
"Blood Visions", though, is still a bit of a different thing. I've definitely come to appreciate it since re-acquiring it, and some of the songs get stuck in my head lately just as much as "See Saw" does. But it's not as lo-fi as the singles. In fact, it's recorded pretty well, although I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's polished, as I had originally thought. If anything, I think the clean, distinct sound of the guitars on the album is down to a recording technique, perhaps like what The Feelies did when they recorded their album "Crazy Rhythms"--plugging the guitars directly into the mixing board instead of into amps which are then miked and recorded, which is the standard recording approach. If this is what Jay Reatard did, it was without a doubt on purpose and to achieve the exact sound that he got. If there's one thing that's become obvious to me about Jay Reatard from reading about him and his career, it's that he does everything he does for a specific reason. In this case, with "Blood Visions" and its guitar sound, I'm guessing that he was looking for the very same flat, airless guitar sound that he got. It has a lot of the same effect for "Blood Visions" that the same sort of sound has on Gang Of Four's first album, "Entertainment"--it makes the whole record sound very tense and uneasy. The album would sound this way even without lyrics, in fact, but Jay's lyrics only heighten that sort of unease that already pervades the music. It's not always clear what exactly he's singing about, but it's not anything very nice. On the opening title track, he just yells over and over, "Blood visions--what they want to give me." This is the lion's share of the lyrics. What blood visions are is never explained, though Jay appears on the album's cover wearing nothing but a red bikini brief, covered head to toe in blood (fake, one assumes). His troubled family life is a matter of public record, as is his unstable personality and tendency to freak out during performances, so the idea that he's plagued by disturbing, violent visions in his private life is not nearly as farfetched as it might be for a lot of other musicians. However, it's never really explained. One song in which he does go into some detail is the ominously titled "My Family", in which he sings, "A child's love tuns into a bloody mom" (assuming I'm even understanding him correctly). Later he says, "Memories stay here, the bludgeoning will set them off," and asks someone to "please close your eyes as the blows make impact." It's not clear who he's talking to, or whether he's speaking of violence as inflicted by himself or someone else, but it's still pretty creepy.
The whole album has a dark, scary vibe, epitomized by song titles like "Death Is Forming," "Nightmares", and "Greed, Money, Useless Children". Even some of the less frightening song titles hide creepy lyrical subjects: on "It's So Easy", Jay sings, "It's so easy when your friends are dead. It's so much easier when you don't even care." Later, on "I See You Standing There", he talks about seeing the girl in question as she picks her kids up from school. "Everything is fine, everything is cool," he says, but what the listener starts to realize is that he's stalking this girl, that she has no idea he's watching her go about her daily activities.
Once I started to understand "Blood Visions" as an example of dark, tense postpunk, I found myself appreciating it a lot more than I initially had. The songwriting is still catchy, and Reatard seems to have a knack for a catchy chorus no matter what genre he's working in. However, "Blood Visions" is definitely a dark album, and it works as such.
I still haven't ventured back into Jay Reatard's earlier music career--he has something like 10 years of releases with The Reatards, Lost Sounds, and a whole lot of other side projects and one-offs, dating back to the mid-90s--but at this point, I'm sure of one thing: I like what he's doing now. Even if it turns out that I'm not as excited by his first 10 years or so of records, I have his future output to look forward to. It promises to be highly prolific, too--he is already due to release 5 more singles on Matador before the end of the year. I for one am looking forward to them.
Jay Reatard - See Saw
Jay Reatard - My Shadow