By Alex Szeptycki
In the spirit of its mischievous name, Jade Hairpins never takes itself all that seriously, and that is all to the good. Why dampen eccentricity this joyful with any reservations?
Jade Hairpins, Harmony Avenue. (Merge Records)
Stumbling onto great new music is a challenge. It is easy to become locked into favorite artists, especially when streaming algorithm feedback loops strengthen the bond. So it was a delight to discover, by chance, Harmony Avenue, the full-length debut from the duo Jade Hairpins. Jonah Falco and Mike Haliechuck, members of Toronto hardcore outfit Fucked Up, have concocted a bright and eminently listenable pop record. The pair’s influences are plain, but they are combined creatively and accented by amusingly obtuse lyrics.
Harmony Avenue embraces a modern pop sensibility, but it also pays homage to sounds like disco and post-punk along the way. Echoes of earlier artists can often be heard, but the record never pays homage to others to the point that it feels indebted. Take a song like “Post No Bill”: the tune’s jangling synths and syncopated guitars, combined with muscular bass and cascading snare fills, suggests the Talking Heads, though here there’s more eeriness and claustrophobia. Lead singer Jonah Falco’s voice is tight and high pitched as he sings “Alone in a room the walls are clear/a slight reverberation is all I hear.” As the chorus swells, fear takes over; the song threatens to devolve into cacophony. It never fully collapses though, managing to deftly teeter on the edge.
While the darkness of “Post No Bill” works well, most of the album is considerably brighter in terms of sound and spirit. “J Terrapin,” the first track, blisters with pop eccentricity. Cheery power chords are accompanied by lyrics that are almost (but not quite) too clever. “I was born in the minutes of an hour’s last breath” goes the bold opening salvo, a zaniness that succeeds because of the ease of Falco’s delivery. Similarly, the choral whoops of the unapologetically weird romp “I hate the theremin” are fun: this is playful nonsense.
Indeed, Falco’s lyrics are the disc’s highlights. He mixes and matches enigmatic turns of phrase with mundane observations. You don’t always fully understand the lines, but that is okay. “(Don’t Break My) Devotion” is a near-inscrutable story of tenuous trust. Falco is apparently the tune’s pleader. At one point, the singer quips, “Don’t break my devotion, it’s just a push away.” His cries of “the beating of raining/And the clattering of faith” hint at some sort of metaphysical angst, but Falco’s sense of loss never becomes that extreme.
Falco is at his best drawing challenging connections between events cosmic and everyday. In “Broadstairs Beach,” a wintry trip to the coast becomes so much more. Falco exalts “A love letter to a receding sea/A lesson learned and one I’ll never teach.” His breezy and carefree voice is reminiscent of Morrissey’s — they both know how to neatly compliment a clean guitar melody. The song celebrates the sort of sanctuary that can only be had on wintry shores. Emotionally, the effort is cheery yet somehow also weighty. When Falco sings “there is no place where you will not be welcome,” he’s not just dreaming — he is hymning a moment of great beauty.
That’s not to say that Harmony Avenue is always breezy. Even the peace found in “Broadstairs Beach” is presented as an escape. Other moments feel much more dour. “Yesterdang” drips with wistful energy, though the title’s play on words raises a smile. Brittle, syncopated guitars serve as the lighthearted foundation for this exercise in remorse. Falco sings of “regretting the way the road turns/while remembering the way it’s went.” The sentiment is bittersweet; Falco feels the pain in his past, and knows it’s worth holding onto.
On occasion, the band leaves these quiet moments behind for satiric matters. “Mary Magazine” spoofs the joys of commercialism. Falco sings “Mary Magazine, the wealth of Hades/Stacked, minted, magnificent ladies.” The woman is alluring but also artificial. He pokes fun at the ubiquity of products at football-field-sized superstores: “I can see for aisles and aisles.” This is the album’s most straightforward song; a thumping bass and simple drumbeat are rock ‘n’ roll standards. Free of complications, the song is listenable — but could have benefited from the instrumental adventurousness displayed elsewhere.
“Father Coin” probably carries the album’s most overt message; it’s a spooky synth pop number that bemoans the greed of the metaphorical title character. Father Coin is an evil guy; he strokes his mustache as his subjects lose their health. Lyricist Jeremy Gaudet warns that “over the dead he crawls under your bed/he’s quite aware that you’re hiding your cash.” It is treated as a vividly macabre vision; the shrilly ominous guitars paint a very disturbing picture. The song’s arresting, but the bridge feels too disjointed for its own good. This manic, brittle guitar solo stops and starts with little warning — which breaks up the song’s flow.
The final track of Harmony Avenue is its strangest. “Motherman” is a seven-minute epic. Repetitive, squelching synth and driving drums form a foundation upon which new elements are added, piece by piece; It’s reminiscent of an LCD Soundsystem song. The methodical buildup is flawlessly carried out; by the time Falco begins singing you have become involved. Here Falco is at his inscrutable best, crying “Go put on the face they tried to erase/Porcelain white, slip inside your lace.” The song generates a series of crescendos, each broken back down before another takes its place. This is a long but compelling journey.
Harmony Avenue is surprising in the best ways. A debut disc from a relatively unknown group, the recording showcases the duo’s talent for crafting songs, as well its clever and creative use of prominent musical influences. In the spirit of its mischievous name, Jade Hairpins never takes itself all that seriously, and that is all to the good. Why dampen eccentricity this joyful with any reservations?
Alex Szeptycki is a student from Charlottesville, Virginia, currently studying at Stanford University. He is majoring in American Studies, with a focus in Contemporary Art and Media. He is currently finishing up his senior year, before looking to pursue a career in writing or the arts.