Friday, February 18, 2011

Small Change: Jepp “Jepp”

We’re rolling out a new feature here at BMF called “Small Change”, thanks to our good friend Lee at REAL GONE. Small Change spotlights great, often overlooked CDs that you can get for cheap. Just because the economy sucks, it doesn’t mean your music has to.


JEPP “Jepp” (1998)

Ah, the 1990s. They were a great time for me - and a great time for discovering new music. Back in those days, my friend Rich Barnard and I found hundreds of great albums in the bargain bins of London’s independent record shops and at record fairs. Sometimes we’d pick them up because we’d read reviews, but mostly we’d pick them up because they looked interesting, or somehow right - like they were produced by someone interesting or had decent guests, you know the sort of thing... If you’re someone who has obsessively bought albums, you’ve certainly gone through similar rituals yourself.

This self titled album by Jepp captured my interest after seeing a review in Mojo magazine, which said favourable things and compared her to Rickie Lee Jones. The reviewer also said that Jepp had a voice which would be an acquired taste. It sounded like something I should hear...and soon. Luckily, Rich found one in a bargain bin somewhere not longer after.

There are flashes of music recalling Rickie Lee but I could never completely understand why the magazine said she was a strong influence, since there’s a far stronger one: Jepp’s voluminous, vibrato filled vocal style owes a great debt to Grace Slick.
‘Bowling Night’ gets things underway with a marriage of 90’s style fuzz bass and 60’s style vibraphone. The song is a snapshot of a life, a mother, her migraines and a job she hated. Jepp’s voice soars to attention-grabbing levels, becomes absorbing and by the end of this, you’ll know whether you love her or hate her – it’s really that instant. ‘Superglue Low’ has a more blues-rock feel, but as with most of the music on this album, it’s not quite so simple. Over the low-tuned rhythms, Jepp’s voice is softer than on the opener, less impassioned, but often retaining a sharpness. Lyrically, it sounds like specific storytelling, but the messages seem fairly oblique.

‘Parsons Green’ is much gentler and it’s slightly jazzy acoustic work provides a nice contrast to the fuller sounding previous tracks. One of the albums strongest moments, Jepp’s voice remains soft and intriguing; the vibes return and some soaring guitar work adds colour. ‘Go Home Early’ makes great use of string sounds, a solid but simple drum rhythm and more vibraphones – and Jepp’s voice wanders into Grace Slick territory. By this point, it becomes clear that the album’s great appeal and longevity lies in the care that’s gone into the arrangements and songcraft. Jepp’s music has so many layers, its retro charm becomes enticing.

The haunting ‘Tiny Dancer’ pushes Jepp’s voice to its most extreme. The Grace Slick-isms are at their most blatant with forced vibrato; the music is at its most spiky, altogether creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. ‘The Guy I Like’ pulls together fuzzy electric guitar, great use of marimba and neo-calypso stylings, which at the outset make it sound like an aggressive cousin to Rickie Lee Jones’s ‘Ghetto of My Mind’ (so maybe that’s why that magazine review picked her as an obvious reference point?). Again the musical layers are appealing – unlike lots of other tracks, the guitar is heavily featured.

Another softer track ‘Las Vegas’ sees the acoustic side of Jepp’s work make a return. If I were to make a musical comparison here, I’d say it resembled some of the quieter moments from Bree Sharp’s ‘More B.S.’ album (although Jepp’s debut was recorded some years before). The acoustic jangle intro of ‘Orbit’ pulls us into album’s most accessible track – Jepp’s voice isn’t quite as hard here and it’s musically simpler. It’s not without those layers, though, as electric guitars are used to created fuzz (but always sparingly) and beneath everything, the sound of the vibraphone provides a much welcome addition (if you find yourself really getting into this album, you’ll understand that the vibraphones are key in giving it most of its retro coolness).

Many of those London record stores and their bargain bins are long gone; the record fairs gather dust and attract only the most faithful, but this Jepp album remains in my collection. It’s been many years, but I still recall the excitement it generated when I first heard it. In all honesty, it’s lost none of that spark. It’s still unconventionally beautiful and surprisingly demanding on the listener for a singer-songwriter album in the pop/rock vein. I’ve played it to a couple of people who’ve really understood it and loved it. I’ve played it to others who’ve had a knee-jerk reaction to Jepp’s voice and compared it to Alanis Morissette and missed any Jefferson Airplane-isms completely.

On the whole, this seems to be an album which has been largely overlooked. There’s very little about it, or Sara Jepp (or even her second album ‘7:11’) on the internet. If you find a copy, do yourselves a favour and pick it up. Provided Jepp’s quirky voice doesn’t turn you off, there are some great songs to be heard.