Music Monday: Jubilee Riots: Penny Black

Just because I mostly write classical music (or whichever of the other imperfect monikers you prefer) doesn’t mean it's the only genre of music I listen to, let alone the only genre I get excited enough to geek out about. I may not have the same deep knowledge and stylistic vocabulary to engage it with, but there’s an awful lot of great music out there that does things to me that trio sonatas simply don’t. So this week we peek out from our usual waters to check out Jubilee Riots’ album, Penny Black.

Until this past September, Jubilee Riots was working under the name Enter the Haggis, a Celtic/rock band based out of Toronto, and that was how I first got to know their music. As I got to know their back catalogue (largely thanks to Spotify, since they aren’t exactly in the habit of schlepping albums they released in the 90’s around to all their current shows . . . ), it became pretty clear that over the years, they’d been drifting pretty firmly towards the rock part of the Celtic/rock genre, and by the sounds of it, that’s in part what motivated the name change — Enter the Haggis is a delightful name for a Celtic band, but it’s not exactly ideal for a group working outside that genre. (I’m honestly not sure if the new name is a reference to the historical clash between Catholics and Protestants in Toronto in 1875 [Wikipedia]. On the one hand, it’s a pretty distinctive name, and it happened in their home town, but on the other, historical sectarian strife isn’t a core part of their songwriting output, so it could just be a coincidence.) The name change seems like a prudent move, and maybe even a peace offering to fans of their older work — it’s an acknowledgement that they really are doing different things now, and instead of splitting the fanbase, I feel like the new name offers a graceful exit for people who aren’t along for this new ride. 

Before starting to write the songs for Penny Black, the band asked their fans to send them stories from their own lives as longhand physical letters to use as source material. In the end, they wound up with over five hundred pages’ worth of communications, and gradually managed to whittle that stack down to ten songs and 41 minutes of music. Some of the songs are amalgamations from many such submissions, but others hew closely to specific letters (albeit with varying degrees of artistic license — this is songwriting, not a dissertation in oral history). As would be expected from such a wide swath of source material, the songs cover a lot of emotional ground, from heartbreak and homesickness to pump-up numbers and post-apocalyptic reconciliation.

It’s clear we’re in a new sound world from the very first bars of “Trying Times”, with a ragged upright piano pounding out a grim ostinato. It’s a leaner, starker base, but it’s also more produced, with fuzz and distortion sneaking in around the edges. And yet by the time the song really gets going, complete with chorus and wailing harmonica, it’s a lithe, relentless thing, a powerful, heady onrush pulsing relentlessly forward. “Two Bare Hands” is equally irresistible, tho now in a rather more cheerful vein. It makes me grin and dance around uncontrollably every time I hear it, which is really all I ever want from a song like that. (It reminds me a lot of “Shut Up and Dance” and had I world enough and time I would absolutely try to make a mashup of them just for kicks.) But it gets better, because it’s followed immediately by “The President’s Shoes”, which is honestly worth the entire album — it’s a song about stealing Richard Nixon’s shoes to go dancing in, what’s not to love? (I can’t decide how I feel about the synth taking over from the voice for the repeated “move move move move move”; on the one hand, it’s a super neat effect and I’m into it, but on the other it does seem like it might be just a hair over the line.)

Like the first two songs, “Unsteady” is drawn from a number of letters, but it’s in a rather more Country style, and features Heather Robb of The Spring Standards. (I was inspired by this track to go listen to their stuff, but I haven’t yet spent enough time with them to come to any firm conclusions.) Then we get “Traveler”, which seems to hearken back to their work before the name change, specifically calling to mind the similarly trumpet-laced world of “Can’t Trust the News” on their Modest Revolution. “Cut the Lights” puts us firmly back into the newer, Pop-ier world, which Trevor Lewington amusedly notes is the only love song he’s written that has “no shipwreck metaphors or death!” [Jubilee Riots website]. (There is an official music video for this track and it involves an exploding pineapple and I just really think that everyone needs to know about this because I still have no idea what to do with this information.)

Even further removed from their old aesthetic is “Astray”, which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who spent fifty years not knowing that other members of his family had survived. It’s haunting, tense, and hunted, railing against the inhumanity, uncertainty, and stolen years. “Lived a Life” leads us back to less fraught territory, and probably has my favorite chorus lyrics of the album. With its bittersweet acknowledgement of life’s shortness and preciousness and also its pains and imperfections, it seems to echo — in message if not in music — the similarly death-touched “Let Me Go”, the penultimate song on Whitelake. This is followed by “Rapture”, which sounds like nothing else they’ve done, and then another plunge into the dark, pulsing, relentless drive of the opener with the concluding “Song Plays On”.

Even setting aside the outlier that is “Unsteady”, it‘s a very mixed bag. Whitelake and Modest Revolution felt like tightly honed products with a distinctive perfected sound, and Penny Black feels more like a sprawling grab-bag, a set of musical experiments. (Whitelake, in particular, remains the strongest album they’ve done. Not only is each song on it solid in its own right, but the whole works as a powerful, seamless gestalt.*) But I think this is actually a good thing. It’s easy to imagine the band carrying on in that vein, producing more albums like Whitelake and Modest Revolution, and I’m sure that many of those albums would be solid, even excellent, listening experiences, but it’s also easy to imagine that getting stale and played out. Penny Black throws open the floodgates: I’m not sure where the band is going to wind up, whether they’ll settle firmly into a new stylistic niche or continue exploring, but this album feels like a dazzling field of possibilities. If it doesn’t cohere as well as a single entity, that’s only because it’s straining after so many different ways forward. Their future is open, deliciously so, and I cannot wait to see where it takes them.

*In contrast to, say, Casualties of Retail, which has a ton of great songs (some of them not recorded anywhere else!) but just does not flow as an album. Soapbox Heroes is something of the reverse — none of its individual songs are really that striking, but as an album it works; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.