Jackie O Motherfucker – Earth Sound System

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It is sixteen years since Jackie O Motherfucker’s first release, and music has moved on. Their role at the heart of the scene annoyingly described as ‘Weird Folk’ influenced the sounds of the subsequent decade, helping to free a stream of excellent folk-influence musicians from their shackles, and recapturing the energy of the original folk cosmonauts, journeying to the heart of world music in the early 60s. At their best JOMF are essential listening, fed by a culture of improvisation and exploration developed among an elastic group of musicians. They sought the new in the old, mixing blues, electronics, free jazz, raga, space rock and much else to create something that needed a new label to keep it under control.

So where does this leave JOMF in 2011?  Founder Tom Greenwood is still at the centre of the band, surrounded by a different cast. He seems to be struggling for energy, and it soon becomes clear he’s also short of ideas. The album opens what appears to be Velvet Underground tribute song. ‘In the Willows’ sounds like the Velvets drowning in their own overwhelming ennui. From somewhere in the miasma, Tom Greenwood groans like a jammed cassette player, muttering “She gathered the sun all in her fist”, marvelling at an act of destiny that seems way beyond him. Meandering guitar, cymbal washes and howling wind effects create a desolate landscape behind him. It teeters on the brink of parody, but just about pulls it off.

Then the album delivers the first of two raga-based improvised tracks, ‘Raga Joining’ later followed by ‘Raga Separating’. The problem is that neither is very interesting.  They seem like experimental box-ticking, included to establish credentials rather than to give us anything new, using electronic percussion and eastern guitar noodlings to no particular purpose. Over fifteen minutes long in total, they outstay their welcome.

The album reaches something of a nadir with ‘Dedication’, a lazy, self indulgent song which tries the patience of the listener beyond endurance. It consists of a repeated refrain, “This is dedicated to / the person who / is trying to find / the next right thing to do.” Tom Greenwood’s repeats this grammatically irritating, spectacularly meaningless phrase again and again throughout six extended minutes, daring the listener to call his bluff and switch it off.

It’s not all bad news. The final track, ‘Where We Go’, suddenly locate the energy that is mysteriously lacking everywhere else. An agreeably dirty, grinding guitar part, sounding like ‘Helter Skelter’ played by The Stooges, gives us a reason to listen, while Greenwood incants semi-comprehensibly over the top. He’s not a man with a rock voice, but this is at least a track worth pressing play for, not something that can be honestly be said about the rest of Earth Sound System.

JOMF have high standards to meet, set by themselves.  We need bands that care about their music rather than what anyone else thinks, so it’s a disappointment that they seem shorter on inspiration than ever before. Pitchfork described Tom Greenwood as “the odds-on favourite to shiv a Fleet Fox”, but on this evidence Robin Pecknold won’t be having sleepless nights.