Jukebox The Ghost: Self-titled Album Review

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Jukebox The Ghost originated as an undergraduate band at George Washington University, comprising pianist and singer Ben Thornewill, guitarist Tommy Siegel, and drummer Jesse Kristin.  The trio’s music is best described as a pop, but with an intellectual and more organic sound than what you find on the Top 40. Think of FUN.’s first album without the stratospheric vocal range of Nate Ruess. Thornewill’s piano playing is featured in most of their music, an understandable artifact of the influence Ben Folds had in their formation. After their first album Let Live & Let Ghosts was well received by fans and critics, they toured with their muse, opening for Ben Folds in the late 2000’s. Since then, they have toured and performed with several prominent artists such as  Barenaked Ladies and Jack’s Mannequin. I was hooked by their 2012 album Safe Travels, which contained musical breadth and lyrical depth.  In late October they released their self-titled fourth album.  It took the band in a new direction—which is good for preventing stagnation—but lacks the aforementioned breadth and depth that attracted me to their earlier music.  As a general assessment, their music is more explicitly pop on this album, utilizing repetition, synths, electronic drums, and some voice modulation.  This is also a relationship-heavy album; the woes of heterosexual monogamy are pervasive. These are not bad characteristics, but they are jarring in this context. Overall, it’s a good album, but is a few points away from great because of some redundancy and simplicity, earning a 7/10 Let’s have a closer look:

Right away they enter new territory, featuring an electronic organ and some electronic drum kicks on “Sound of a Broken Heart”.  The chorus is catchy and includes an effervescent synth, as well as a comfortable IV-V-I cadence.  This popular chord progression is very apparent at several points on the album, whereas the band’s past music had some unusual and intriguing harmonic devices.

“Made for Ending” sounds like Owl City, so take that as you will.  It uses a lot of the same sounds as the first track, showcasing the repetition I mentioned.  It’s clear from the title alone that (surprise!) a relationship is not going so well.

The third track, “Girl”, I really like.  We get a taste of Thornewill’s silken voice over a simple backdrop of piano/organ and drums. I especially like how the syncopated rhythms in the vocal line fit into the steady beat.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gevER2R7pkc

“The Great Unknown” is a bit of an anthem of persistence and carpe diem, without which no generic album would be complete.  Like any good anthem, it has simple, repeated lyrics making it easy to shout-sing along to. The piano does lend it an appealing, driving rhythm.

“Long Way Home” is a nice song about friendships… and forgetting friendships.  It has a “Hey There Delilah” feel to it, as it is sung very sweetly with the accompaniment of acoustic guitar.  The melismatic theme on the word “home” is a nice touch in the chorus.

We get another taste of synthesizers in “When the Nights Get Long”, and I like it.  This new sound works well in conjunction with the piano, which grounds the song in a catchy descending theme that is repeated in various octaves.

The album returns to all out pop in “The One”, which reminds me of a Lady Gaga song in its use of layered synths and a simple hook in the chorus that will get stuck in your head.

Fortunately, we get a shift from musically vapid to scintillating in “Hollywood”.  The lyrics address an unnamed romantic partner who wants a cinematic relationship, but instead is given “real life,” which is not quite as glamorous.  The alternation between slow verses and the upbeat, rollicking chorus is particularly enjoyable.

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“Postcard” is interesting because it is based on a single pitch that persists for the entire song.  The use of different harmonies around that pitch, as well as the reverb put on most of the instruments makes it a nice departure from previous songs.

“Undeniable You” features Thornewill bemoaning a breakup, and then venerating a newfound love, reminding us—as hundreds of others have before—that life persists after a breakup.  There is minimal instrumental accompaniment, just a lot of passionate singing and pitched up vocal harmonies.  It’s a cool sound. It is the only song that is not explicitly beat-based, instead leaving room for expression.

We end with “Show Me Where it Hurts”, a gentle piano ballad.  I appreciate the conclusion on an acoustic song built on a foundation of strings. It adds a last minute sense of variety to the otherwise generic synth-heavy album.

[Image source:  jukeboxtheghost.com (band website)]

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