This is the sort of band that I look forward to writing about but always end up dreading completing. While at complete ease with certain bands and projects with disorienting lists detailing their voluminous output, the music of Jackie-O Motherfucker presents a special challenge. Currently about 16 albums in and about 42 members down over the past 15 years, JOMF as a project emphasize Tom Greenwood’s guiding hand in the well of chaos that is the band. With Earth Sound System the results are expectedly intriguing and ultimately interesting, but for once JOMF sound content to take a leisurely stroll through their improvisations rather than apply themselves to the level they normally do. After a string of hugely enjoyable to sonically pleasing releases the end result is unsettling and out of character – the lackluster slump that was looming but hoping to be avoided for so long. Now faced with a lack of direction, JOMF often wade through their own performances rather than command them.

If we learned anything from Ballads of the Revolution it’s that Tom Greenwood works best in this modern version of Jackie-O Motherfucker as a ringleader for the sonic carnival that is his band. While that album showcased his abilities as a songwriter and continued to tout his Calvin Johnson style delivery (but not octave), Earth Sound System drops the ball spectacularly by removing the sense of movement and catharsis that so often guided previous efforts. Greenwood has never been a “singer’s singer” with his sprechgesang style and penchant for psych-folk jams that often cloud his vocals behind a wash of guitar, drums, and whatever else is playing, but here the faults of his voice come off as sloppy. Blame it on the stark mix or the sparse playing, whatever it is that causes the entirety of opener ‘In The Willows’ to never gel. After iteration and iteration of ‘In the willows and endless wind…’ catharsis is never achieved or forced; the song merely goes on and slowly adds in more drums until it just sounds like the drummer woke up and decided to start playing. Peaks are reached by utilizing chord changes and higher pitches in the vocals, the other guitars and ambience creeping in too late. ‘Dedication’ suffers the same fate and seems like a slight improvement only for the tremolo wah guitar addition.

More enjoyable and definitely better executed standouts ‘Raga Joining’ and ‘Raga Separating’ quell the musique concrete monster for their lengths. At least they kind of do given that these two lengthy jams almost never seem to peak, with the former relying on skittering drum machine manipulations and the occasional blast of clarinet (a la Malaikat Dan Singa even) to carry the entire thing. It’s a pleasant respite from the, dare I say it, boring 14 minutes that ‘…Willows’ and ‘Dedication’ eat up, yet also fails to satiate with no pay off and vaguely ‘Dwarf Nebula’ styled tape tomfoolery. As bizarrely one-key as these experiments are, they are often the most engaging and worthwhile tracks on the disc since the desired result isn’t one of massive build and release or the search for cathartic methods, but one of embracing the aspect of sound as form over sound as note while remaining bound by choice to notational relation. Rather than never achieve a peak or failing to properly build to one, they choose battles on lower more even terrain and end up the victors at the end. ‘Bring It To Me’ combines aspects of the Ragas as much as the lesser vocal driven tracks to decent effect worth calling “the best relaxed song” here while closer ‘Where We Go’ shows what should have been all along. Raucous and driving, the sounds of previous JOMF with the hint of some progress blend to an exhilarating end to an album plagued with lows.

As tempting as it is to ask Greenwood and Co. to just take a break for a while, this sort of release almost seems necessary given the massive output of Jackie-O Motherfucker thus far. I’ll take a risk on the next two or three releases after this with the hope that they find their sound and style in a more refined manner than here. Ragged and unruly yet organized sounding, Earth Sound System is about dichotomy in some way – but the payoff is not worth the buy in.

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