Singer-songwriter Jaye Bartell’s newest release, a 10-song journey by the name of Kokomo, is half gloomy lullaby and half classic rock jam, but not without a healthy dose of Mellotron, clavichord, circus toys and a host of other instruments. Plurality of texture seems to be the ambition here, a kind of musical world-making that conjures figures like Tom Waits, his album Rain Dogs in particular. Don’t get it confused though: Kokomo is decidedly less than that rare piece of genius from the mid-80s. The albums are similar in initiative, but, sadly, could not be more different in the result.
Bartell’s slightly flat, dispassionate voice drags these songs along as if they’re reluctant to follow. Its brightest moment is on the fourth track titled “Too Late”, in which it receives backing support from vocalist Larkin Farrar. Farrar’s voice contributes to Bartell’s performance what it fails to add to the music as a whole: a little feeling. Together they carry this sleepy, devotional tune fairly well. It calls back to a particular kind of Joni Mitchell, if she took a couple xanax and sang underwater. “Too Late” is a song about a self-pitying lover who’s worried they’re not contributing to the relationship. Put all this together and it’s no wonder their partner “comes by so late”.
Kokomo’s opener, “Baskets”, is its other focal point. The tune is a tightly-written, four-minute ditty driven by what sounds like an intensely strummed zither, quivering off into the clouds. This ancient instrument repurposed here by Bartell lends the song a mysterious quality, as if the listener is about to be told a story from folklore. That makes the song seem gentle. In reality, it’s anything but. “Baskets” recalls big pop tunes from the 60s: a mid-tempo, swung, four-on-the-floor beat, not unlike an intro to a children’s show about a gregarious giant. Its lyrics, however, fall a little flat amidst all the brightness: “we used to live in a house together, do you remember when we lived in a house together, it was where we would go to go home.” The lyrics speak for themselves, and it doesn’t help much when Bartell slurs them into existence. Kokomo is doubtless an ambitious project. The wide range of styles Bartell attempts to master requires a lot of experience, and a great team of musicians to bring to the table. The difficult thing is that Bartell appears to have both. Kokomo is his fifth album in five years, a prolific track record that makes an impression in and of itself. It will be exciting to see what his next release brings.