Up to the point of receiving Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse, the second full-length album from the Bitter Tears, my familiarity with the band was limited to knowing that they had played some shows with Califone. That fact alone, to a Califone fanatic such as myself, serves as an instant credibility booster. And much to my pleasant surprise, the Bitter Tears seem to share Califone’s interest in manipulating folk-blues to their own singular ends, but the similarities end there. So this means that my hope for more Califone-esque material to hold me over before Califone (finally) follow up Roots & Crowns will remain unfulfilled, but the Bitter Tears have created an album that successfully mines a different vein of folk-blues. Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse showcase an Americana band far more interested in the loopier fringes of the genre than their glitchier, more reserved tour-mates.
Of course, there are plenty of bands that depend upon deliberate eccentricity to spruce up otherwise boring material. Fortunately, I can assure you that the Bitter Tears know better than to rely entirely on quirkiness, and Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse is flush with enough memorable harmonies and clever instrumentation to earn their offbeat tendencies. Album opener, “Slay the Heart of the Earth,” starts the proceedings with the sort of lo-fi, jumpiness that might make Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex” come to mind, with the Bitter Tears using Mexicali horns where Neutral Milk Hotel preferred looped feedback. In fact, before we go any further: if for some reason you can’t stand Mexicali horns, I’d seriously recommend avoiding this album. It’s a constant presence. That being said, I happen to be completely in favor of every last horn deployed on Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse.
While the album’s opening blast of carefree, fuck-all attitude seems to portend a record loaded with sloppy instrumentation and sardonic lyrics, the reality of Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse is….well, not really that far off from that, frankly. Don’t worry though. We’ve all sat through countless insufferable bands that think their sarcastic attitudes and detuned instruments are going to lead them to record the next Wowee Zowee. Of course, those bands are all wrong, and the Bitter Tears are smart enough to avoid those oft-treacherous pitfalls. If anything, the band’s blithe attitudes imply a band having far too much fun to worry about trivial things like somber lyrics or proper instrumental arrangements.
Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse is not without it’s low-key moments though. “Hamptons,” whose lyrical purpose seems to be the uncomplicated message that aging is no fun and upper middle class lifestyles are filled with empty distractions, tempers that message with sweet harmonies and good-natured, albeit slight, lyrics (“Baby-boomer/Scared of tumors/You desire/To retire/Wine decanter/Book-club banter/Is what you turn to/The hole you fell through”). Ultimately though, implying these songs have any kind of serious message or unified purpose is to miss the point of the album. After all, the song “Starlight” features few lyrics beyond the song’s one-word title. That doesn’t prevent the song from being a high point on the album. The Bitter Tears just have these melodies and rhythms they want to play. The lyrics are sort of an afterthought.
Perhaps this is the reason that Califone felt a kinship with the Bitter Tears. Tim Rutili’s lyrics, though often quite beautiful, are mostly fragmented pieces of abstract poetry, and frequently seem to exist to give the listener something a little more tangible to take away from their songs. Certainly some folks won’t agree with the “Music first, lyrics later” approach, but not every band needs a David Berman to justify its existence. The final song on Jam Tarts In The Jakehouse highlights this point perfectly. “Worthless Sleaze” is roughly four minutes of disorderly violin, acoustic guitar, and brass weaving in and out of each other complimented by brief bouts of almost inaudible singing. Depending upon your taste, it may be unlistenable, or you may find it gloriously goofy. I happen to love it, but, you know, to each his own and all that.