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Friday, November 01, 2013

Jars of Clay -- Much Afraid

 photo 220px-Joc2_zpsd6e9ebff.jpg

And now we have the Jars of Clay story. Their first album went multi-platinum, beloved by millions. It caught so many people off-guard, it established new expectations for what a debut should sound like. Unfortunately, it also set higher expectations on the band itself. With fans set on the band's acoustic rock sound, Jars of Clay could have simply delivered a sequel. That they didn't is much to their credit, but by not attempting to duplicate the sound of their debut, Jars of Clay altered the path of their career forever. This meant that Much Afraid, this very different sophomore album, was the last by Jars of Clay to go platinum. But this means that those who have stuck with the band til now have found themselves much rewarded. I am getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about Much Afraid.
From the start, it is clear Jars of Clay aren't content to retread their steps. Opener, "Overjoyed," features just as much electric guitar as acoustic, more keys, and real drums. These three elements stick around for much of the album. The band use drum loops from time to time, most notably on the intro to "Fade to Grey," but for the most part, there's a real guy pounding away in the back. Maybe "pounding away" isn't the best description. Much Afraid is far less aggressive and urgent than Jars of Clay's debut. Also, remember those strings that I blabbed on and on about in the last review? They pop up here like a leaping short guy's head over a tall brick wall, and that's about it. The ornamental nature of the band's sound is completely stripped away.
For the most part, Much Afraid features four major players, one singing, one playing electric guitar, one playing acoustic, one playing keys, and a couple of guys filling in for a rhythm section. While I wouldn't go so far as to say this is coffee house music, Much Afraid certainly resembles lighter, 90's style contemporary rock. It could probably play in a coffee house.
Fortunately, in that genre, Much Afraid is, song for song, a really, really good album. It's not like there are no landmarks to their previous album, either. "Frail," an old demo track re-done here, is one of the best things the band have ever recorded. The strings are allowed a moment to return, and the song builds to an excellent climax behind some of Dan Haseltine's most vulnerable lyrics to date. I've heard this song can make people cry...

While it is certainly different, Much Afraid hosts its own special magic. It fits its title. It is a bold move, but one done with a recognition of its cost. It speaks to a feeling of courage, coupled with nervous reluctance--the bravery to take a plunge, while fearing the landing the entirety of the fall. It is the work of a band talented and brave enough to re-invent itself, but smart enough to understand the consequences.
Also, 90's FOREVER!!!

1997 Essential Records
1. Overjoyed 2:58
2. Fade to Grey 3:34
3. Tea and Sympathy 4:51
4. Crazy Times 3:34
5. Frail 6:57
6. Five Candles (You Were There) 3:48
7. Weighed Down 3:39
8. Portrait of an Apology5:43
9. Truce 3:11
10. Much Afraid 3:53
11. Hymn 3:53

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