#1. Ready for the House (1978).
The first Jandek album wasn’t originally a Jandek album at all. When it first appeared in 1978, it was credited to The Units, but a previously existing San Francisco new wave band by the same name cried foul. The Rep quickly re-dubbed his project Jandek, and Ready for the House has borne that name ever since. It’s funny that the Rep chose a band name for this album, since it is clearly the work of one performer. In fact, it’s one of the loneliest records you will ever hear in your life.
I cannot imagine what it must have been like to hear this in 1978, devoid of any context. I’ve heard Ready for the House described as “atonal death blues,” and that gets pretty close. Eight of these nine tracks feature just the Rep strumming and picking an oddly tuned acoustic guitar, moaning abstract lyrics in a breathy, amelodic whisper. If you told me that this album was made by a dead person whose spirit was haunting an old mansion, I would not be surprised. The first track, “Naked in the Afternoon,” is certainly some form of blues, but it’s skin-crawlingly creepy. The Rep’s voice sounds remarkably young here, and the lyrics are dark and sometimes Biblical (“Show Me the Way, O Lord”), adding to the chilling effect.
Listening to Ready for the House feels a little like spying. There’s a damaged quality to it that one cannot help but imagine extends to the singer, recording this on his own. It is one of those albums that questions its own existence while it is playing. Why would someone make this? That only makes it more compelling, if you can deal with the atonality of it. If you make it to the final track, “European Jewel,” you will hear actual fingered chords on an electric guitar and a song with an actual structure, which will make you question why the previous eight tracks are what they are. (The full title is “European Jewel (Incomplete)” because it cuts off mid-sentence, ending the album by dropping you into a bottomless pit.)
In many ways Ready for the House is the template for everything that came after. Even as the Jandek ensembles grow over time, even as the Rep steps out on stage, even as the sound gets impossibly bigger, the center of it is still a lonely man with a hole in his soul. As far as he strays from this solo acoustic sound, he always goes back to it after a while, as if reminding himself where the heart of it all lies. Ready for the House is one of the most existentially lonesome albums ever recorded, broken and sad and hard to listen to. It is unmusical to the point of being anti-music, a lone voice crying out in the wilderness with nothing to hold on to.
A couple points of interest: The Rep would go on to mine the lyrics of Ready for the House for album titles for years. “European Jewel” would be revisited many more times during these early years. The cover of this record, a day-glo image of a chair beside a window, feels oddly iconic to me, although it is demonstrably obscure. It just captures the Jandek aesthetic. And the name Jandek is interesting. As the Rep explains in his first interview, it was January and he was talking to a man named Decker. That’s it. As is often the case with Jandek, what seems mysterious has a very human explanation behind it.
#2. Six and Six (1981).
Ready for the House could have been a one-off and no one would have ever known why. But just as mysteriously, this follow-up appeared three years later. It features the first appearance of the Representative from Corwood on the cover, a stark black-and-white portrait of a young man in front of a curtain. There was no way of knowing in 1981 whether the man on the cover was the man making the music, of course – that would only be confirmed in 2004, when the Rep played live for the first time.
Six and Six follows in the same vein as Ready for the House, though it is crisper and clearer. It is still one man and one guitar, de-tuned into dissonance. It is still impossibly lonesome-sounding. There’s more finger-picking, though I am not sure the Rep is yet using his left hand – this album lives in the world created by one open chord. “Point Judith” finds the Rep spinning a story with a half-spoken vocal style, then revisiting the melody of “Naked in the Afternoon.” The ten-minute “I Knew You Would Leave” is a centerpiece, but every song is similar – dark and isolated, abstract and rambling.
It undeniably weaves a spell, however, and feels even more like peering in on someone in the throes of something powerful. If the first Jandek album asks why someone would make an album like this, the second one only compounds the question. Why would someone make an album like this again? Six and Six sounds like depression feels. The notes are wrong and jarring, the voice lacks in comfort, the atmosphere is suffocating. It’s a long, dark journey, and you get the sense that it’s just beginning.
Listen to “I Knew You Would Leave.”
#3. Later On (1981).
Released later that same year, Later On is surprisingly more playful. It’s still the Rep and a de-tuned acoustic guitar, but the first track, “Your Condition,” introduces a more aggressive, almost stabbing strum style and a piercing harmonica. Did I say piercing? That’s a barely adequate term for how this sounds. These wildly random notes burst from the speakers and assault your ears, especially if you’re not expecting them. The lyrics for “Your Condition” are “That’s your condition,” repeated more and more emphatically for nearly six minutes. It’s wild.
Where the first two albums felt more confessional, Later On concerns itself with a number of different characters. The Jenny of “Oh Jenny” gets an apology, “The Janitor” gets the Rep’s contempt (“It’s a disgrace the way you keep your backyard”), and three songs in a row are dedicated to John, Jessica and Jackson, who goes floating down the Mississippi. Final track “The Second End” finds the Rep singing “Joy to the world, alleluia” over a mess of strummed notes, like someone praising God during the apocalypse.
Overall, though it follows a similar formula, Later On is more robust and full of life. The Rep varies his picking style to come up with new rhythms, even though I’m pretty sure he still isn’t using his left hand. There’s something of a cowpoke feel to “Until Then,” for instance. This is still lonesome, but not as lonely, if that makes sense. It is far less of an existential pit of desolation, sounding more like the man of Six and Six looking outside for the first time in a while.
Listen to “Oh Jenny.”
#4. Chair Beside a Window (1982).
The idea that Jandek is a recluse with no friends is dispelled early on, as Chair Beside a Window marks the first collaborations in the Rep’s catalog. One of the quirks of these early Jandek records is that we have no idea when or in what order these songs were recorded, so it’s hard to build a story from them. It’s possible we’re hearing assembled mix tapes from years of scattered recordings, with no idea who is playing what. But Chair Beside a Window leaves no doubt that there were other people involved with its creation, for the first time.
The idea of Jandek as a band begins with this album’s reprise of “European Jewel,” which includes electric guitar, bass and drums. It’s a wild racket, with only the barest hint of the chord progression from the first take on Ready for the House. This definitely sounds like something further along the timeline, from an album like Foreign Keys, but there would have been no context for it in 1982. It’s just a massive surprise, even if it does sound like the Rep is overdubbing himself here to create a live effect.
But there’s no mistaking the voice on “Nancy Sings” as belonging to the Rep. Justifiably one of the more famous Jandek tracks, this one sets the otherwise unnamed Nancy’s crystal-clear voice atop the Rep’s atonal picking, and the contrast is strangely beautiful. That the Rep has musically inclined friends is but one of the revelations of this track. This is his first attempt at working with a more traditionally talented collaborator, and it sets the tone: the essential Jandek-ness of the track remains intact, even as Nancy explores a more tonal beauty.
Nancy (or I guess her sister Pat?) shows up again on “No Break,” an electric guitar and drums freak-out that also sounds like it is from later in the timeline, but the rest of Chair Beside a Window is the Rep and his acoustic. Even these are more varied. I’m particularly fond of “Love Love,” which dispenses with the dark abstractions in favor of a more straight-ahead message: “Love is the only way, love everybody, love yourself.” If Later On was an awakening, Chair Beside a Window is a healing.
Listen to “Nancy Sings.”
#5. Living in a Moon So Blue (1982).
It’s tempting to think of Living in a Moon So Blue as the first half of a double album, since it and its successor, Staring at the Cellophane, sport similar blurry cover photos of a guitar leaning against a wall. That sense extends to the shape and structure of the albums, too. We’re back to just acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica here as the Rep gives us 16 short tracks, most of which sound made up on the spot.
Only a few of these tracks top three minutes. The surreal poetry of the first few albums is replaced here with little koans. “Walk out, shut the door, now it’s the same as it was before” is the whole of “Suppression,” while “Alexandria Knows” is entirely made up of this line: “Why don’t you sell me two rhymes, I want to tell you two times.” There’s even an instrumental, “One Step Ahead,” which is just aggressive strumming without the vocals.
“Comedy” is the standout for me, because it is so utterly creepy. The Rep’s low, sinister “ha ha ha” is chilling, in a knowing way. It feels like one of the first Jandek songs performed with a bit of a wink, and that aspect of the Rep’s personality would come out more and more. This album is a surprisingly fun listen, but after the much more varied Chair Beside a Window, it feels like a retreat, and like the Rep running out of places to go with this sound. Eventually he’s going to have to bring that left hand into play.
Listen to “Comedy.”
#6. Staring at the Cellophane (1982).
But not yet. Staring at the Cellophane, the Rep’s third album of 1982, is a direct continuation of its predecessor. We get another 15 short tracks performed solo, and these really are the sides C and D of a double album. Can you handle 90 minutes of atonal strumming with minimal, repeated lyrics? This is definitely a way to find out. There are two instrumentals this time, but otherwise it’s very similar.
The picking and strumming is in the same aggressive style as on the previous album, particularly on a string-breaker like “Sand I” or the instrumental “Basic Themes.” The lyrics of “Don’t Get Too Upset” provide the next album with its title. This one can be funny. “Napoleon in Russia,” for example, is literally about Napoleon getting trounced by the Russians, and it ends this way: “Fall out a window, Napoleon, on your white horse and with your sword and your big hat and half a right hand.”
It remains strange to hear the Rep have fun within the same acoustic template he set on two of the most existentially bleak records I know. Staring at the Cellophane seems slight in comparison, and there’s no reason to recommend this one over its predecessor. But on two albums in a row the Representative from Corwood has shown us his more playful side, and considering where he started, that might be the biggest surprise so far.
Listen to “Rather Be Blind.”
#7. Your Turn to Fall (1983).
There are only a couple things separating Your Turn to Fall from the two albums before it. The cover photo is in full color, and is of a desk pushed up against a wall. (There’s a guitar case, and the guitar from the previous two covers could well be inside it, but it’s hard to tell.) And there’s a reprise of “Nancy Sings” called “John Plays Drums,” on which John, presumably, plays the crashing and thrashing drums. The Rep sings this one, and he’s not quite the vocalist Nancy is.
Otherwise this is another 16 short tracks, most of them played solo on a de-tuned acoustic guitar. There are some new echo effects on the Rep’s voice, particularly on a song called “Echo.” The lyrics are still brief and repetitive – “You Don’t Have to Entertain Me” is just the title repeated twice – and these pieces feel improvised on the spot, without a lot of forethought. There’s a pair of instrumentals back to back, “Decree” and “New String,” and the latter sounds like it might be the first thing the Rep played after re-stringing his guitar.
Honestly, the Rep could have continued making albums just like this one for years if he’d wanted to, despite how unremarkable most of this is. Instead, Your Turn to Fall marks the end of this acoustic phase – he’d briefly pick up this sound again in a couple albums, and then do away with it all together for years. Again, it’s impossible to know in which order these songs were recorded, but if the Rep is building a story with them, then this is the end of chapter one.
#8. The Rocks Crumble (1983).
Released the same year as Your Turn to Fall, The Rocks Crumble gives us our first real blast of electric Jandek. There’s a photo of a drum set on the cover, so you know what you’re in for. Cheekily, the Rep begins this one with two solo acoustic tracks, the menacing “Faceless” and “Birthday,” which is a solo rendering of the song we’ve heard as “Nancy Sings” and “John Plays Drums.” But then the clatter begins, and I can just picture the Rep having so much fun laying down these tracks.
Here we have three – count them, three! – versions of “European Jewel” in a row. The first is solo electric, and sounds like a full version of the incomplete one on Ready for the House. The drums come crashing in for the second one, and I should pause here to explain how the Rep plays drums, since we will be living with this sound for a while. Put simply, he doesn’t play them, he bashes them like a seven-year-old. The drums here are clearly not laying down a rhythm for the guitar, they are making noise behind it. I’m not even sure how to describe the effect. But this is definitely the Rep overdubbing himself, playing drums and guitar.
The third “European Jewel” sounds like a looser take of the second, and then there are two versions of “Message to the Clerk,” another song that will get some play later on, with similar bashing and crashing. The last four songs are the same, and it’s clear we’re hearing the start of a new Jandek era. The Rocks Crumble is loud, abrasive, and surprisingly joyful. It’s still one man alone, but here he sounds like a multitude, and it suits him.
Listen to “Lonesome Company.”
#9. Interstellar Discussion (1984).
Interstellar Discussion is a tale of two halves. The first half, as you may surmise from the cover photo of the same drum set, follows on from The Rocks Crumble. It’s a jam session, the Rep accompanying himself on stabs of electric guitar while someone else – he’s never said who, just that it is someone else, in one of the first interviews – plays drums. He even double-tracks his vocals on “Hey,” adding not-quite-harmonies to his own leads. There isn’t much going on lyrically, and there’s even an instrumental jam, but it sounds like it was a lot of fun to make. Everything is mixed so loud that the chances of getting a headache from this are pretty high, but if you like the sound of wild abandon, this is for you.
The second half returns us to the acoustic sound of early Jandek, and it’s all perfectly fine, if a little unexciting. “Rifle in the Closet” is the closest to a genuine blues song here, the Rep’s finger-picking giving it a gallop while he intones the story of a confrontation with someone named John. (Perhaps the John who plays drums?) It cheekily ends with this line: “The rifle in the closet is just the name of this song.” “Sung” finds him “looking at a blank page” and “singing a song that I didn’t write,” by which he means no one wrote it.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this surprisingly diverse second half. “Ha Ha” is voice and harmonica, the Rep trading off licks and laughs. I wouldn’t call what he’s doing on “May 7th, 9:15 A.M.” proficient in any way, but the finger-picking is more confident and rhythmic here. And closer “Kick” confines itself to one note on one string to tell the story of a drug addict, and it’s effective. All of this exists within Jandek’s specific world, of course, but this one feels like the product of a burst of inspiration, and that’s exciting.
Listen to “Rifle in the Closet.”
#10. Nine-Thirty (1985).
A back-to-earth moment after the previous two celebrations, Nine-Thirty is another solo acoustic album featuring 15 short tracks. But where the previous albums shaped like this one were playful and spontaneous, this one feels more like the cousin of Six and Six, at least musically. Tempos are slower, strumming is more laconic, and I don’t think he is using his left hand on this one, after two albums of fretboard freak-outs.
In short, it’s a bit of a return to “classic” Jandek, dark and melancholy and alone. The lyrics return to the abstract imagery of the first few albums, like this stunner from “Wrong Time”: “You can put your bloody mind in a paper bag and eat it for lunch.” The high point here is the five-minute “This Is a Death Dream,” a hallucinogenic talking blues that feels, for the first time in a while, like the work of the man who made Ready for the House. In a final surprise, the Rep reprises “O Jenny” from Later On, though this version is very similar to the original, save for the abrupt ending.
Nine-Thirty serves as a reminder that the Rep can disguise his loneliness with deafening drums and wildly played electric guitar (and he will, for years after this one), but the heart of the Jandek project is one man alone in a room, desolate and out of tune, crying out for connection. This is well and truly the end of the acoustic phase, as the next eight years will see nothing but electric band efforts. But this is the core Jandek sound, and the Rep will always return to it.
Listen to “This is a Death Dream.”
#11. Foreign Keys (1985).
Foreign Keys kicks off a run of 11 albums that are referred to as Jandek’s electric period. Where Ready for the House sounded desolate and forlorn, most of the music on these 11 albums is vibrant, joyful, random and alive. Very little of it sounds like it was thought out beforehand, just captured in the moment. In a lot of ways, these records predict the collaborative, freeform nature of much of the live material since 2004. The defining characteristic here is wild abandon, the Rep clearly having fun and howling his face off.
This album is similar to The Rocks Crumble, in that it sounds like the Rep overdubbing himself for much of it. Of course, it’s impossible to tell who is playing what, but the drums pound and thrash with the caveman aesthetic established on that record; the guitars stab out randomly, their jagged edges sometimes drawing blood; and the voice is unmistakable, especially when reaching for some imagined high note on “Don’t Be So Mean.”
So it’s a surprise, then, when a female vocalist appears on “Needs No Sun” and stays for the entire second half. This is assumed to be Nancy, of “Nancy Sings” fame, but again, it’s impossible to know. Her voice is rich and full, though, like Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, and she drags these improvised jams in the direction of actual songs. She doesn’t quite get them there, but her contributions are the most tuneful and compelling thing about Foreign Keys. She seems absolutely down for whatever gets thrown her way. I like that the album bookends with “Spanish in Me,” sung by the Rep, and its twin “River to Madrid,” on which he is joined by Nancy. “Floating down a river to Madrid, ‘cause that’s the Spanish in me…”
It’s often speculated that Nancy was the Rep’s girlfriend for a while, and that Foreign Keys really begins their collaboration. We have no idea when these tracks were recorded, or in what order, but as you’ll see, they do seem to have been assembled to tell a story. Whether that story bears any resemblance to real life remains a mystery.
Listen to “River to Madrid.”
#12. Telegraph Melts (1986).
Remarkably, Telegraph Melts is even louder and more chaotic. It picks up right where Foreign Keys left off, with the almost violent drum hammering and rough-hewn, random electric guitar bursts. Everything is driven into the red, so that the physical sound of this album is almost painful. And there is Nancy, singing her heart out over this din, not so much trying to make sense of it as trying to keep it all from spinning out of control. When she’s not there, as on “Ace of Diamonds,” it collapses into ear-splitting insanity.
Again, it is impossible to know who played what. Is it a full band, each musician playing like the Rep, or is it the Rep numerous times? The sense of abandon certainly gives the impression of a jam session, but the distinctive style on drums and guitar points to a studio creation. The first half of Telegraph Melts is, bar none, the loudest and most menacing Jandek material until the live records, with only the harmonica-inflected title track to ease the tension, and even that is a glorious mess.
And then comes “Governor Rhodes,” five minutes of hippy-dippy poetry that changes the tone completely. The Rep and Nancy trade off lines, imploring us to “celebrate our love,” “celebrate our magic,” “chant and sing.” It’s remarkably unlike anything else before it, and leads into the sillier second half. “You Painted Your Teeth” is wild, the Rep taking the role of the bluesman who threatens his love with death, only in this case he’s adamant that his lady love not paint her teeth. “Impassioned” doesn’t come close to describing this vocal. “Mother’s Day Card” finds the Rep literally reading a Mother’s Day card in the same vocal style. It’s something else.
When people ask why I follow Jandek, I usually say that these albums are unlike any other I’ve heard. Telegraph Melts fits that description perfectly. In its own way, the musical evolution from Ready for the House to this is as vast as any left turns Bowie made throughout his career. It’s still almost anti-music, but it’s anti-music in a completely different way, and that’s interesting.
#13. Follow Your Footsteps (1986).
This electric band era of Jandek raises a lot of questions. One of the most fascinating to me is this: do the other musicians involved know that they are featured on Jandek albums? Follow Your Footsteps introduces a second guitar player, one who is much more conventionally talented and plays in standard tuning. There’s little doubt that much of this album was taken from jam sessions in which the Rep played drums and this new fellow played guitar. “Honey,” the opening track, literally sounds like a garage band warming up, playing whatever is coming to mind. The second song is called “What Do You Want to Sing,” and Nancy (probably) asks this question out loud, once, while the guitar strums and the drums thunder. It feels like eavesdropping on their rehearsals.
So I have no idea whether Nancy or this new guitar player (or even John, who may still be playing drums) are still alive, or have any idea that people like me are listening to their jam sessions. Follow Your Footsteps is undoubtedly the work of multiple musicians, much of it having been built around this new guy’s guitar playing. (It’s speculated that his name is Eddie, for reasons I will get to.) As such, this is the most “musical” Jandek album yet. “Jaws of Murmur” is a psychedelic nightmare out of Julian Cope’s fever dreams, but songs like “Preacher” and “Didn’t Ask Why” and “I Know You Well” are surprisingly pretty folk numbers. The Rep sings these in the breathy voice he used on Six and Six, and the effect is ghostly. “I Know You Well” is a legitimately lovely song, by any standard.
The Rep takes over in the album’s final third, giving us more primitive drums and broken-glass guitar. We get two acoustic pieces to round things off, and a funny closing track called “We’re All Through.” But even though this album’s conclusion is very Jandekian, the bulk of it sounds more like “normal” music than anything so far. Which raises another question: do we come to Jandek for “normal” music? We’ll be asking this one more frequently as we move through this electric era. Whether or not the musicians involved know they have contributed to it, Follow Your Footsteps is the start of a more defensibly beautiful Jandek. That’s a fascinating development.
Listen to “I Know You Well.”
#14. Modern Dances (1987).
Modern Dances is the sound of a relationship. I’m not sure there’s any other way to interpret it. While there’s no way to know how many people truly contributed to this album, nor whether these noisy jams were intended to sit next to each other on plastic and wax discs, Modern Dances sure feels like the only full-length collaboration between the Rep and Nancy. Her voice is on most of these tracks, and there’s a noticeable sparkle to their duets. It is entirely possible to imagine this as a romantic Jandek album.
Of course, it’s also incredibly loud and incredibly strange. Eddie, the more traditional guitarist, is gone, leaving the Rep to do his thing with the drums and electric guitars. Everything is dissonant and primal again. But where Telegraph Melts felt dark and ominous, this one is just a good time. The difference is the affectionate call-and-response between the Rep and Nancy. He encourages her at the start of “Number 512” by saying “Talk yourself into it, it’s number 512,” and then when she mixes the numbers up, he goes with it: “Five two one.” The words mean nothing, the relationship means everything. (Nancy goes on to complain, in full melodic voice, about the pace of the song and about drummers in general. It’s funny.)
Now look, I have no idea whether the Rep and Nancy were involved in any way beyond what we hear here. I know I am reading a lot into the way she sings the romantic verses of “Spiritual Song,” the way the two of them trade off verses on a new version of “Spanish in Me,” and the playful way they dance around the central question of “I Want to Know Why.” If this is a love story, it’s the weirdest and most cacophonous one you’ve ever heard. But it’s interesting to imagine that these tracks were chosen for this album to give this impression.
So when Nancy disappears and the Rep brings out the de-tuned acoustic again for the last three tracks, it feels like a breakup. This will be compounded by the sad, Nancy-less next album, but here, the end of Modern Dances returns our broken troubadour to his original lonesome state. “Open E” is as forlorn a lyric as he’s ever written: “Each and every day I dream a dream in which I don’t return.” After the rampant joy of the rest of the album, the finale is actually painful. If the lack of traditional skill employed here is meant to be an emotional conduit, Modern Dances is where it connects.
Listen to “Open E.”
#15. Blue Corpse (1987).
If Modern Dances is a relationship album, Blue Corpse is a breakup record. While, again, there is no way of knowing what might have happened between the Rep and Nancy, she’s nowhere to be found on this album, and its 44 minutes are filled with longing and loss. Eddie is back (and on “Down at the Ball Park” the Rep calls him by name), strumming an acoustic in standard tuning (and perhaps singing lead on a few tracks). Much of the album is just this: lonely folk music about missing someone. The covers of Modern Dancesand Blue Corpse were clearly taken only moments apart as well, which cements their connection.
Am I thinking too much about what is, in the end, a collection of strummy fragments? Probably. I would think these particular strummy fragments were placed together for a reason, but maybe not. That’s all part of the mystery of Jandek. All we can say for certain is that this is a very different kind of album than the Rep has given us before, one that is more specific in its heartbreak. The opening lines set the tone: “I passed by the building you were working in, I wanted to step inside it, I wanted to lie in your arms again.” “Your Other Man” finds the Rep returning to his anguished whisper, singing, “I guess your mind’s made up, I guess there’s not much left to do, go on, see your other man…” Vocally he sounds like he’s unraveling.
For all this, Blue Corpse is definitely one of the most traditional-sounding and accessible Jandek records. Heck, there’s a sorta-cover of “House of the Rising Sun” on here, and the centerpiece, the 10-minute “Only Lover,” is like Jandek’s surreal version of “Layla,” the strumming and echoed vocals building in intensity as the Rep sings of his lost love “gone floating down a river to Madrid.” It’s a nice callback, and shows at least some forethought connecting these records. If not for the closing minute of drum-bashing and an odd harmonica interlude, you may not even immediately recognize this as a Jandek album.
Listening to Jandek requires a willingness to enter the Rep’s pocket universe, where music plays by his rules. Live there long enough and even the idea of comparing Jandek to anyone else loses its meaning. You can only compare this music to itself. But within this universe, Blue Corpse feels like something special. It’s one of only a few I would recommend to the uninitiated, and yet its power comes from its context. It lives here, and to really feel it you need to live here too.
Listen to “Your Other Man.”
#16. You Walk Alone (1988).
Not for the first time in the Jandek catalog, the cover of You Walk Alone truly conveys the tone of the music inside. It’s a black and white photo of a cocky-looking young Representative from Corwood, decked out in his ’70s hittin’-the-town best. It’s a look that screams rock and roll, and You Walk Alone follows suit, giving us eight straight-ahead bluesy rock numbers. I don’t even mean blues according to Jandek – this is the most tonal, straightforward bluesy music we’ve ever heard under that name.
There’s good and bad with that. Eddie, the more conventionally influenced guitar player, takes over here, dominating the next series of albums with his clear, piercing leads and boogie rhythms, making a lot of this sound like a bar band rehearsal tape. Of course, I have no idea if this is still Eddie, or if there ever was an Eddie, but I’m using Eddie as a concept here – he represents the more typical blues-rock leanings of this era of Jandek, and as such is responsible for a noticeable drop in weirdness and originality. The Rep is still the Rep – his voice is unmistakable – but the bulk of this album is what most people would call music, and in the world of Jandek, that’s a little strange.
That said, Eddie is a pretty good player, and the Rep commits himself to these longer jams like he’s suddenly fronting Led Zeppelin. “Time and Space” is a traditional three-chord blues romp that he shouts over with abandon. “The Cat That Walked from Shelbyville” is a new version of “For Today,” from Follow Your Footsteps. “Quinn Boys II” is a sequel re-using the lyrics from Blue Corpse’s “Quinn Boys” over some tumbling lead lines, “I Know the Times” is a slow blues shuffle, and the nine-minute “When the Telephone Melts” finds the Rep almost doing a Bob Dylan over a clean guitar strum.
It all sort of feels like what the classic rock station in Jandek’s warped universe might play. It still retains the Rep’s unique approach to music, but he’s never sounded more like us before. Collaboration, in this case, has smoothed out a lot of the qualities that seem central to the Jandek identity. You Walk Alone is the first Jandek album to truly make me question what a Jandek album ought to be. It’s the first one that sounds like it might have been made for other people to enjoy, which, for Jandek, is a seismic shift.
#17. On the Way (1988).
Thankfully, On the Way is much weirder. I have no idea what might have possessed the Rep to put these nine songs on the same piece of wax, in this order. His reasons are as obscured as the drum set on the cover, rendered barely visible by a poorly exposed photo. (Have I mentioned that these covers should be in a gallery somewhere? You’d never in a million years think of this photo as an album cover, but here it is.) Whatever the logic, On the Way offers a journey unique to the Jandek catalog, sort of a retrospective of the places we’ve recently been.
Like the jagged one-man-band sound of Foreign Keys? Here’s “Wrap it Up” and “Bring It Back to Seventy-Five.” Enjoy the bluesy feel of You Walk Alone? Eddie is back for what might be the definitive version of “Message to the Clerk,” all crunchy guitars and barroom leads. Intrigued by the ghostly folk of Blue Corpse? The entire second side here is spectral and strummy, and the centerpiece is the nearly nine-minute “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” sung by a different male vocalist, yet infused with all the heartbreak of the most lonesome Jandek material.
As an overview of the recent sounds of Jandek, On the Way is interesting, and it does take the listener on a journey, especially the softer and more spectral second side. The poetry of that second side, especially “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” is worthwhile. It doesn’t offer much in the way of new experiences, and it is still dominated by a more straightforward tonality, but the trip is still worthwhile.
Listen to “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You.”
#18. The Living End (1989).
This record sports one of the classic Jandek covers, a straight-on black-and-white portrait of the Rep, looking about 20 and ready for anything. If you think the choice of cover photo might convey a more standard rock record with fewer hidden surprises, you’re right. The Living End is completely owned by the more conventional guitarist we have been calling Eddie, with every song featuring his bluesy rhythm and lead playing. So much so that this can almost feel like one 44-minute guitar solo.
In fact, what this feels most like is one long rehearsal/jam session by a blues-rock band hoping to play their small town’s summer festival. That may sound harsh, but one of the attractions of Jandek to me is that the music sounds like nothing else, and therefore can’t be judged by normal standards. This music sounds like a lot of other things, and can definitely be compared to other bluesy rock music. Eddie is a decent guitar player, but he is playing blues runs that can be set next to thousands of others and compared.
The atmosphere of this is still Jandekian, and we get Nancy back for a few songs at the end while the Rep (or John, or someone else) plays drums, but in a lot of ways The Living End feels like a regular local band rather than a broken otherworldly troubadour. The standouts are the longer ones, the jammy “Talk That Talk” and the gentler “Take Me Away With You,” but most of this album is surprisingly accessible. For a lot of people, this era is the high point of Jandek’s work, but I’m conflicted about it. After immersing myself in Jandek’s difficult world, there’s an immediacy to this one that is strangely uncomfortable.
Listen to “Janitor’s Dead.”
#19. Somebody in the Snow (1990).
The Representative begins the 1990s with an album that balances the pleasant (by his standards) and the bewildering (by anyone’s standards) better than any he’s made so far. It’s possible to listen to all of The Living End without once wondering what in the hell you are experiencing, but Somebody in the Snow has plenty of material that sets the garage-band blues of this period in sharp relief.
Start with the fact that most of the vocals on the first half of record are provided by a new female vocalist, which Jandek afficionados believe is Nancy’s sister Pat. (The Rep mentioned Pat in one of his few interviews.) She’s not as strong or pure a singer as Nancy, but she seems just as willing to follow the Rep down any of his rabbit holes. She sings the noisy-blues “Come Through With a Smile” gamely, and adds an interesting dimension to a brief jam like “Walking Around.” Eddie is here, of course, but the Rep takes over in the second half, and we get to hear him having fun in the studio, juxtaposing his detuned acoustic with his inimitable drum work and hard-panning his vocals left and right, to have conversations with himself.
The two standouts, though, close out the first half. “Om” is unlike anything the Rep has done, before or since. It’s a wordless vocal sculpture, his voice and Pat’s intertwining into an unnerving dirge. All by itself it dispels the fear that Somebody in the Snow will be The Living End Part II, and then the harmonica-driven “Bring It In a Manger” seals the deal with the strangest Christmas song ever written. I cannot even tell you what most of it means: “Said I’ll find a true eagle someday, give him my genitals in a paper cup, give him my soul and rainbow…” This makes up for the Rep later rhyming “Stephen” with “leaving” and “believing.”
Somebody in the Snow is named after a line in “Know Thy Self” on Ready for the House, and to me it feels like the Rep reminding himself of his roots. The second half of this album is the most Jandekian material we’ve had in a while, the sound of a lonely man making strange music by himself. It’s new model Jandek for sure, but it’s absolutely Jandek at heart.
#20. One Foot in the North (1991).
Jandek’s 20th album gets back to basics. The cover is intentionally reminiscent of the one adorning Later On, and for much of the runtime, the Rep sounds alone. He strums and sings over an electric guitar here, albeit one in standard tuning, and for the first four songs, that’s it. The seven-minute “Yellow Pages,” which opens this record, is like a mission statement. “You’ve got to help me, dear, because there’s no release…” There’s a genuine isolation to this song, and it carries on for some time here.
It’s almost a shame when Eddie shows up to play lead all over the traditional-sounding “Alehouse Blues,” a song that could be an outtake from You Walk Alone. (And may very well be, since we still have no idea when and in what order these songs were recorded.) But all is forgiven once the eight-minute “Upon the Grandeur” begins. It sounds very much like the same finger-picking figure that formed the basis of “I’ll Sit Alone and Think a Lot About You,” but this more electrified version works surprisingly well. Its sentiments are similar, too: “And if you go away, I will wait here and miss you…” This is the last Jandek song like it, with Eddie’s leads and the Rep’s whisper.
After that the rest of the album sort of peters out, with the Rep playing electric guitar and drums on a series of mid-paced rambles. I like the insistence of “Dreaming Man” and the brief closer, “Honey.” But it is the decision to make his 20th album a reset of sorts, returning to the lonesome heart of the Jandek project, that makes One Foot in the North stand out. The next album will bring this period to a cacophonous close, and this one feels like a moment of reflection before heading off into the next chapter.
Listen to “Upon the Grandeur.”
Speaking of next chapters, we’ll do albums 21 to 40 next week, which will bring us through 2004.
See you in line Tuesday morning.