Underappreciated Album: Turtletoes – Jackersville
The mysterious and mysteriously overlooked Jackersville , the only recorded offering from the Chicago-area indie jazz-rock outfit Turtletoes, would be called many things if people could actually find or hear it.
At first glance, it’s a quirky and good-humored slap in the face to Chicago’s indie elite. In addition to the band’s name poking fun at indie heroes Tortoise, the cardboard-sleeve packaging of its debut, printed up at Fireproof Press, pays a strange and almost back-handed sort of homage to both Tortoise and Shellac’s At Action Park. The record’s brief liner notes continue the Chicago links, making sure to thank Coctails/Rachel’s alum John Upchurch.
But toss the disc in your CD player or drop it into your iPod and you’ll be surprised by what pours out and confronts you.
The 10 tracks — and one instrumental secret song — on Jackersville are a strange hybrid of dissonant acoustic manifestoes, carefully crafted jazz numbers, shape-shifting indie rock, quirky pseudo-ballads, and tongue-in-cheek stream of consciousness exercises. The music is, surprisingly, stranger and more vehemently original than much of the scene that surrounded it during its creation. It’s a rock record. It’s a jazz record. It’s a novelty record. It’s a sometimes-surreal, 40-odd-minute journey led by John Hughes III (If you want to make the family connection, consider that Hefty Records released the soundtrack to the John Hughes-scripted film Reach The Rock. Insert your favorites 80s teen-film reference here.)
Jackersville is a lot of things, but it is never boring or predictable.
The proceedings begin with the odd and inviting “Tap,” where Hughes, multi-tracked over spare percussion and a dissonant guitar progression, dryly moans lyrics like, “I can read from the Bible/ And increase my cash flow/ if I wanted to/ Ring, ring, ring/ I’ll strap a bucket to my head.”
But, between these quirky and toned-down verses are quick jolts of straight-faced funk, complete with chicca-chicca electric guitars, disco dance-floor bass scales, hi-hat-driven drum rhythms and energetic trumpets. And it works. “Tastes Like Chicken” is even more surprising. The track starts with an intensely danceable jazz motif, complete with trumpet solo, before Turtletoes descends into “A Shot In The Dark”-like mystique and then, seemingly out of nowhere, the distortion kicks in. Alongside crunchy hard-rock guitars, Orbert Davis’ trumpet begins to sound less like a Verve Records outtake and more like it would feel right at home alongside John Zorn’s spirited Naked City freak-outs or Ornette Coleman’s colorful sonic explosions.
Similar tricks are played and juxtapositions are constructed on the moody “Upstairs There Are Kittens,” where flamenco-inspired acoustics and spacey samples give way to an explosion of rock drums and guitar after Hughes whispers, “I feel it’s a confession/ My hair is a mess/ The music from my head is distorted and flanged.”
Or “Porl,” where trumpet and surf guitar lines slowed down to a lurch fade in favor of shards and blasts of noise and distorted guitar.
Or “Ringo Oiwake,” where casual acoustic amblings stand side-by-side with Eastern scales.
Or “Jazz At My Cabin,” arguably one of the CD’s most accessible tracks, where Hughes snarls pointed lyrics like “Get a job/ kill the joy/ feed your mother’s face” over shuffled acoustic guitar before The Turtletoes Players, as they’re referenced in the CD’s liner notes, come stomping into the forefront. (It’s worth noting that on this track — which could serve as a three minute, 46 second précis of most the disc — Hughes commands, “Go back to Jackersville/ Take a look at your eyes.” Your readings are encouraged.)
For all the strange surprises and unexpected landscapes the record presents, though, Jackersville also is worth noting for a number of slightly more conventional tracks that shouldn’t be relegated to lost-classic status. The addictive energy of “Cold Rupture” — one of the record’s longest tracks, clocking in at just 4:21 — isn’t constructed out of bizarre asides or clever studio gimmicks. It’s driven by guitars that shift without stumbling from jazzy swaying to perfectly timed interjections to driving refrains, Hughes’ spirited delivery (“Cold rupture, a man walks upon my boundary?”), and not one but two clever, swing-influenced drum solos that could make Krupa blush. The same could be said of the bouncy “Modern Icon,” where seemingly disconnected Hughes asides like “Mr. Mayor kisses the girl” or “Cleopatra but twice as fast/ more symmetry in the walk/ more weight on the back” are the only thing that remains constant as the song comfortably moves from 1960s guitar-pop to acoustic verses that hint at Hawaiian slack guitar to dissonant post-rock lulls complete with McCombs-style bass and xylophone.
After a handful of listens, though, what makes the record border on the brilliant is just how heartfelt, how well-performed and how carefully composed it all is.
Consider the slowed metabolism and barely veiled pensiveness of “Truest Regard,” where Hughes speaks in a near-whisper around thoughtful acoustic guitar picking and even accompaniment from violin and cello. The words that come out of his mouth are a million steps removed from the realm of novelty music or the joking indie-jazz musings sometimes suggested by much of the record. Look at the first verse:
I’ll take a giant step forward/to make you believe in me.
I’m not just a slacker/ strumming dissonance on a funk guitar.
I’ll prove my point by stepping backward/ with my declaration in my pocket.
Don’t stand me up with tradition.
Don’t ignore these jazz songs.
There is a feeling in the truest regard.
There is a feeling that I’m singing of.
There still is true meaning.
In the second verse, Hughes repeats some of the sentiments, getting agitated as he repeats the phrase “I’m not just a slacker writing a book on my life” and later suggesting that the “true meaning” (from Verse One?) “gets out where the set is slowing.” Maybe records with cover drawings of shirtless old men shooting off firearms shouldn’t be read too closely or too seriously, but one can’t help but think Hughes is using this record-slowing moment to spit out a little more of what’s really on his mind. Reading it straight-faced or not, it’s another interesting level and facet to a record surprisingly filled with such moments. Too bad Jackersville seems to be the only thing you’ll ever hear from Turtletoes, if you ever hear it at all.