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Seismic-Sound Album Review: Maraqopa by Damien Juarado. Neptune Theater Feb.17th 2012

February 17, 2012

You are walking through a museum.  You stop into a dimly lit gallery.  There are two paintings in this gallery.  On the wall facing the entrance is a giant painting.  You walk up to it.  The painting is all white and the only way that you know that it’s a painting and not part of the wall is by the slim wooden frame around it and the mark of the brush strokes that fill the canvas.  The painting is all white but a shade of white that is slightly darker than the wall.  You turn around and look at the wall behind you.  On that wall is the other painting.  It is exactly the same size and it too is white.  The only difference is that this painting has a large black square painted in its’ middle.

Black square surrounded by white.

You look back at the other painting.

All white.

Listening to Damien Jurado is like being in that gallery.  At his best, Jurado is inscrutable, abstract, unsettling and challenging.  When it’s just Jurado, his voice and his guitar can take you places.  Like an abstract painter, he makes you work with the starkness.  He demands that you find yourself in his art, making you work a little for it.  You leave the experience better for it and a little baffled by how you got there.

Jurado’s Maraqopa often lives up to these traits. It’s a solid album and Jurado might just be his generation’s best lyricist, managing to weave lyrics through beautifully simple and affecting melodies. But at times, the instrumentation and the over production detract from Jurado’s core strengths. I found myself wanting to clear away the instruments, hear the words, hear the voice and the song. Give the band the night off.

The album starts darkly with “Nothing is the News”, a psychedelic rave up that would be at home on an Al Kooper Super Sessions album.  It’s all swirly guitar, organ and distant vocals.  It’s the latest addition in the mini-trippy revival heralded locally on Jesse Syke’s last record.  Unlike that tour de force, the guitar solos on this track are noodly and shapeless.  Despite its reach for atmosphere, this song sounds like a garage jam with a made up vocal.

The next song is closer to the real deal and hints at the album’s core theme.  All guitar and sparse keys over an R&B groove “Life Away From the Garden” starts promisingly until a kid choir shows up echoing Jurado’s verses…kind of creepy actually.

The next song is a gem. “Maraqopa” sounds like something off of Van Morrison’s lost classic Veedon Fleece.  The R&B groove has been replaced by a loose shuffle.  The instrumentation is nicely sparse.  This is the kind of decoration that really works for Jurado.  His voice and lyrics are front and center and the backing vocals are spot on.  This is the kind of song that gets stuck in your head and never leaves.  The best part of the song is the unexpected coda that comes near the end-one of those left-turns that can really make a song stick.

This Time Next Year” has a lilting almost loungy feel.  With its vaguely samba groove and catchy cadences, it’s the perfect head phones-on walking around the city tune.  The instrumentation here is unobtrusive which suits Jurado’s voice.  Even the light orchestration lends the song a vintage radio feel.  If this was buried in heavy rotation on KIXI, no one listening would complain.

“Reel to Reel” is one of the lost opportunities on this album.  This song could be such a nice soulful Al Greenish ballad but the circus arrangement is mad making.  Its like someone told Jurado that the song was too pretty and persuaded him to make it sound weirder.  I’d love to hear him play this solo and unplugged.  It’s a sparse valentine gem hiding behind a calliope.

“Working Titles” is one of those lyrical avalanches that has the listener hanging on every word.  The stanzas push and push towards some sort of poetic shoot out with destiny.  At heart it’s a love letter to the Evergreen State, telling one of the song’s protagonists to “leave me Manhattan, I want the evergreens.  Write me a song I can sing in my sleep.  As sure as the rain that will fall where you stand.  I want you and the skyline. These are my demands.”  Magic.

The second half of the album hews closer to the sap. “Everyone a Star” and “So On, Nevada” are sparser and more dreamlike.  They are perfect late summer evening songs.  Sated, sing-able and soulful, they would be at home in a Neko Case set list.

Anyone who caught Jurado’s set at Doe Bay Music Festival this summer was treated to the haunting glory of “Museum of Flight”. Sparse, catchy and desperate, the song is probably the best one on the album. Sadly, after the first verse on the album version the band kicks-in and pulls too much sunshine out of the clouds. A love song but it works better when it mines the darker vein of the seam.  Adding a synthesizer and a weird skip-step beat might have been an attempt to make the song catchier and more upbeat but really just get in the way.

With a lot of pre-release love, Maraqopa deserves all that and then some, Damien earning his local treasure stripes ten times over. Go out and pick it up, but with a lighter producer’s touch, it would have exceeded expectations.

Catch Damien with two, yes two INCREDIBLE openers … Bryan John Appleby and Gold Leaves at The Neptune tonight!( Buy Tix here)

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