Back in the day Joe Jackson, Graham Maby and Dave Houghton were young princes of the New Wave scene, resplendent in straight-legged pants, skinny ties, shiny suit jackets and pork-pie hats. New Wave faded into the shadows of Grunge and Rap, it’s signature synthesized production now sounds dated and most of it’s stars have gone on to jobs in the mainstream maelstrom. A few artists remain as relevant as ever. You can count these three gents among them. Joe Jackson’s music, although sometimes faddish, was always built on a base of pure musicianship. Whether he was singing a hep-cat number, ripping through punk inspired rockers, or writing gorgeous pop melodies, there was never a question about Joe’s talent and musical integrity. The same can be said for the outstanding band that he has worked off and on with for 3 decades.
Jackson’s new release Rain reunites him with the rhythm section of that band, bassist Graham Maby and Dave Houghton. This configuration allows Jackson the chance to strip the album down to the basic elements that have driven his music for decades. It also offers the chance to spotlight 10 songs that Jackson believes to be some of the best material he’s written. There isn’t any glitz to draw attention away from the melody, lyrics and Jackson’s vocals. The three instruments – bass, drums and Jackson’s piano, are there to support the songs without overpowering them. Despite this, it’s impossible not to note the effectiveness of these players and the ease with which they accompany each other.
Jackson piano takes lead on all tracks but his vocals are the center of attention. He’s always sung with an edgy urgency that translates to a passion for whatever subject he’s tackling. And if you’ve been a fan of his for a while you know you can count on the complexity of love being one of those subjects. “Too Tough” finds Jackson, at age 52, still struggling with intimacy. “Solo (So Low)” runs counterpoint to Jackson’s earlier song “Happy Loving Couples.” The older (not necessarily wiser) Jackson recognizes why someone might seek to be part of a couple. “Good Bad Boy” & “King Pleasure” references those early rock numbers without the bleeding guitar (but check out Maby’s bass line). Politics creeps in with “Citizen Sane” which features just enough of that old Jackson world-view cynicism and reappears on “King Pleasure” although from a slightly skewed perspective.
Jackson recorded Rain in Berlin, a city that he’s recently relocated to after living in New York City for nearly twenty years. Jackson’s time in the big apple is still reflected on the song “The Uptown Train,” a tip of the hat to American jazz (Blue Note circa 1950s/’60s) and the landscape of the city. Jackson and band recorded the album at Planet Roc a former Communist run radio station that once housed 20,000 workers. The huge complex is slowly being converted into studios and production companies but most is still desolate. Maybe the dichotomy between the past and present use of the facility plays into Jackson’s mind set. There’s enough uncertainty and angst to proclaim this a Joe Jackson album but there’s also a silver lining to be found in the hope and humor of these songs. After all says Jackson “I like the rain, and I don’t understand why for many people it has this automatic association with doom and gloom. What would we do without rain?”