At 25 minutes and change, Neblung Price’s latest CD is the approximate duration of one of those early-’60s Beach Boys offerings—Shut Down Vol. 2 maybe. But, unlike from those Capitol LPs, there’s no feeling of being short-changed here. Jewels of the Jetpack Malice takes the listener on a day’s journey across peaks and valleys, from dawn to sunset, with no wasted motion.
That’s no accidental metaphor; these songs are spatial in the extreme. Jim Price and Rick Neblung—who every so often disappear into their upstate studio to crank out semi-masterpieces (I like to think they break out the white lightning)—have larded these recordings with evocations of the vast stretches of the American landscape: distant whistles, laconic slide guitar, lonely big-reverbed harmonies. But these happen in a context of musical space: room has been made for every carefully chosen sound.
The first two titles set the tone. “One of Your Cowboys Is Missing” is loping, unhurried, the vocal plaintive and reedy: “One of our cowboys is missing; / he slipped away; / OK.” With “A Great Roar,” we’re on a completely different page: an irresistibly propulsive E7-chord riff right out of the John Fogarty playbook. From this point forward, we’re alternating between melancholy resignation and dumb-rock stupefaction.
But I exaggerate: these songs are tough nuts to crack, actually. The vocals are mixed fairly low, and offer few conventional emotional cues. The language is so stripped down that it reads as found lyrics. You think you’ve caught the gist, but at the last second it swims out of your grasp. If William Carlos Williams had an indie-rock band, it would have sounded something like this. Neblung Price don’t delineate feelings; they hand you a snapshot, a couple of details, and you fill in the blanks—negative space. Every time you come back, you find something different.
I don’t know Rick Neblung’s history, but Jim Price comes to us by way of a long career at WFMU and occasional collaboration with R. Stevie Moore. Like Moore, Neblung Price are something of a musical encyclopedia—adept at using the home studio to construct brief pieces, based around a simple concept or two, evoking disparate pieces of musical history.
“Nervous,” the third cut, threatens to unfold into a dysfunctional self-portrait, but the hypnotic Satie-like piano figure steals the show. The short but sweet “Washed Ashore” is almost a continuation: no vocals; a string section saws away, sounding like it’s channeled through a distortion pedal, while two rudimentary piano phrases alternate.
For this song and the next, “Boy Hiding,” the liner notes credit “ProStudioStrings,” which I looked up. It’s a website: you send them a .wav file, and they arrange strings for you, or implement your arrangement. Whoever is ultimately responsible, I gotta say it: the strings shred, man.
“Boy Hiding” begins with an acoustic guitar and some conventionally pretty harmonies, but, like most of this record, it tells a story not quite graspable—in this case, someone’s gone off to war. A ghostly whistle evokes distance in space and time; and we’re left wondering who’s speaking, who went off to war, what war, whether he ever came back. I pictured something out of The Searchers, a lonely wood-frame house on a prairie, tintype on the wall, curtains blowing softly inward.
In case things were getting too gossamer, now comes the gloriously silly “Asbestos Problem in the Pants.” A slowed-down, distorted Ramones riff starts flailing about in proggy-rock fashion, while one of the boys recites incoherent lyrics in a “Woolly Bully” voice. “Aah”s swoop in and out, with the requisite Big Reverb. Then, the payoff chorus, with the immortal title phrase repeated anthemically. It’s a soda cracker between glasses of wine.
With “Rhinebeck Five and Dime” we’re plopped into the midst of upstate anomie: lots of space and time, very little to do. The five and dime is called upon to fill a great void; it does what it can: “Rainy days; / I am amazed. / The shelves are full of Mary Jane. / God bless the rain and Mary Jane.” That’s all reflected in the arrangement: a simple acoustic guitar, choral vocals, curious woodland sounds from a keyboard.
“Too Much Love” takes us back to Riff Rock Village—the propulsive guitar riff (this time reminiscent of the Move’s “Do Ya?”), the tambourine, the cowbell—this time a little more glammy, and even more reductive. It’s anchored by a couple of phrases, sung in Standard Hard Rawk Caterwaul, and barely coherent. Like “A Great Roar” though, it’s irresistible.
“Alone” is a perfect coda: another acoustic number featuring a fragile Price vocal; a requiem for we know not what. By the end—a lovely dialogue of unexpected guitar chords and chamber strings—we feel a sense of peace and completion. But now I’m reconsidering my first paragraph: Not enough! I want more! Hopefully, Jim and Rick are hitting the ProTools and the white lightning somewhere west of the Hudson, wrangling another lonely sunset into song.
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.