High on Jackson Hill, the newly released album from Canada’s Immaculate Machine could use either of the following things: a bracing dose of energy, or more vocals from founding member Kathryn Calder. Calder’s name may be familiar to some, as she has been an asset to the New Pornographers on their last few tours and even did some lead singing on their last album. Faced with the monumental task of filling in for Neko Case when she is unable to make certain shows, Calder has performed ably and gracefully: not quite attempting to match Case’s range but rather adding her own brand of bashful charm to the New Pornographers live show. That same charm informs her sole lead vocal performance on High on Jackson Hill, making said song (“You Destroyer”) one of the album’s few true highlights.
The majority of the lead vocal duties are left in the hands of Brooke Gallupe, and we must assume that those are generally capable hands, as Gallupe is apparently a trained opera singer. So it seems fair enough to say that High on Jackson Hill rises and falls based on the strength of Gallupe’s vocal performances and compositions. Consequently, the album’s general listlessness and uninventive songwriting falls squarely on his shoulders.
Opener “Don’t Built the Bridge” begins promisingly, with a three-part harmony somewhat ominously intoning, “Don’t build the bridge/ if you don’t want to let the riff-raff over.” The chugging arrangement appears to be structured to suggest a big moment coming at the chorus, but the moment that arrives is surprisingly anti-climactic. Every member of the previous harmony syncs up and lifelessly sings “in an ice age” over and over again, and every instrument that appeared to be building to something more powerful ends up in a lethargic stupor. Sluggish music is fine, and pulling a bait and switch with your listener’s expectations is not just a good idea: it’s recommended. I’m arguing that Immaculate Machine was attempting to stage a big moment and whiffed, lamely.
This is far from the lone example of this sort of failure on High on Jackson Hill. “Sound the Alarms,” as you can tell from the title alone, is meant to be one of the albums more urgent moments, and the stop-start arrangements reflect this well. Simultaneously, Immaculate Machine seem confused about how to fill the gigantic holes left by the stop-start approach, preventing the song from ever really taking off. Only “Neighbors Don’t Mind,” a late album burst of supremely animated power pop, suggests that Immaculate Machine can be an intimidating melodic force.
More problematically, Gallupe seems intent on casting himself as an invariably put upon artist. “Thank Me Later” appears to be a break-up song sung from the perspective of a former significant other of Gallupes, urging him to appreciate the artistic viability of their split. Unfortunately, due to Gallupe’s self-satisfied and bitter performance, the listener is left put off by the overwhelming whininess of the whole endeavor. Likewise, “He’s A Biter” suffers from a similar overindulgence of smugness, wasting the pleasant mid-tempo glam-rock homage on lyrics that bemoan perceived vultures that appropriate Gallupe’s artistic efforts as their own. In between these two tracks is the aforementioned disarmingly sweet “You Destroyer,” where Calder almost effortlessly provides a more engaging and humble blueprint for Gallupe. Here’s hoping Gallupe takes note before Immaculate Machine hit the studio again or, better yet, gives Calder a more prolonged shot at the helm.