The Four Men in the Jennifers Radiate Sunny Pop Rock
The Jennifers' new album, Colors From the Future (self-released), contains bright and citrusy pop as reminiscent of the flowery tang of oranges and lemons as it is of Oranges and Lemons. The similarity to that 1989 XTC album isn't a coincidence. "As a songwriter, I'm influenced by new-wave guitar-bass songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock, Elvis Costello, XTC, Television--that early-'80s sound," says guitarist John Irvine. Colors From the Future shares a melody-centric approach with those early not-quite-new-wave bands, as well as a palette of clean, bell-like instrumentation. But where Television might be a hard sell as background music for a summer barbecue, Colors' songs feel run-through-the-sprinkler cheerful while still retaining art-rock smarts.
Irvine, bassist Joe Tropea, rhythm guitarist Joe Stone, and drummer Skizz Cyzyk are gathered in Irvine's Catonsville living room for a quick chat before practice. Irvine and Stone both work with children: Stone as an ESL teacher, Irvine as a planner for juvenile services. ("Every time something bad happens, we end up in the Sun papers," Irvine sighs.) Local film legend Cyzyk has his fingers in every festival from MicroCineFest to Slamdance (Q&A, Nov. 8, 2006), and Tropea is busy earning a master's degree in public history at UMBC. Despite their professional obligations, the four men commit regularly to jam sessions in Irvine's basement, where a spirit of inclusion reigns.
"Of all the bands I've been in, this has been the most democratic," Tropea says. "Even though [Irvine] writes all of the songs, he's not as compelled to be as controlling as a lot of other people are."
"This is probably the first band I've played drums in where I wasn't just coming up with a beat and playing it," Cyzyk says. "Usually when a drummer says, `Want to hear my idea?' the band goes, `No.'" They all laugh.
The Jennifers were formed in 1992 by an initial lineup of Irvine, college friends Chuck Rainville on bass and Jen Maser on drums, and guitarist Will Wall. They garnered local attention for their first release, Nine Days Wonder--City Paper described the music as "smart, pretty, tuneful pop-rock that owes something to the Kinks"--and perplexingly won the 1995 MTV Beach House Band Search award for "Best All Male Band," an accolade awarded by nearsighted judges who didn't notice Maser. (Her '70s-generic first name was the inspiration for the band's moniker. "I don't think she ever really liked the name," Irvine admits.)
The band members eventually drifted over to other projects, and the Jennifers went on amicable hiatus by the late '90s. In 2001, Cyzyk approached Irvine, who had since joined Cyzyk's surf-rock group Garage Sale, and Tropea to form a band to back up some film projects. "And we morphed into a Dukes of Strastosphear cover band," Irvine says, referencing the psychedelic side project formed by pseudonymous members of XTC. "And we had so much fun doing that just as a lark, it was like, Why don't we see if the Jennifers can get back together?"
This new incarnation of the Jennifers demonstrates considerable finesse in marrying multilayered, addictive melodies with clever lyrics, making the tunes running through your head as much fun as compulsively flip-flopping a Jacob's ladder toy. Check out the Oscar Wilde-cum-Botox wink in Colors' lead track "Mrs. Gray": "Mrs. Gray/ You're looking younger than you should/ You've got a husband with a practice/ He snips the skin fantastic/ But there's a painting in the attic/ And it don't look so good."
"We try not to keep it rhythm/lead [guitar]," Stone says. "We try to keep it interesting and switch off roles and have interesting textures, a melodic pattern, or something like that." The songs also contain the occasional oddball instrument, like theremin on the spacey "Starfleet Academy" and trumpet on "Great War."
"There's a little soul-ska going on," says Irvine, who plays trumpet with the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra and the Homewood Brass Consort. "I was thinking of the Jam."
"Just try to keep it out of mariachi territory," Tropea teases.
"That's the trouble with trumpet," Irvine says. "You get the parallel thirds, and all of a sudden it sounds like a wedding band from Mexico."
The band is pleased with the final result on Colors, and rightly so. "I think it's more of a finished product," Irvine says. "Of all of our projects, we had the most time and the most resources to do it right. We didn't have a record company telling us the way to do it. We had complete control." And that control extends to marketing, as the Jennifers released their album through CD Baby, an online record store that buys independently produced CDs from artists and provides services like making tracks available on iTunes for much less than a standard record company would.
"I personally think in the future you won't need a record company if you have a web site and you do some touring and you've got a good product," Irvine says. Touring in support of this album might be a little tight, as everyone's got day jobs, though the group hasn't ruled out doing a few live dates, including a CD-release party Feb. 23 at Seidel's Bowling Center.
But the internet revolution side of self-promotion has been good to the Jennifers. "We sold a lot of digital downloads of our last record [2003's Book of Bad Advice], even though we never promoted it," Irvine says. "It'll be interesting to see what happens just on [Colors from the Future]'s own merits."
If the Jennifers are banking everything on the album's inherent worth, they've got nothing to worry about. And other bands better understand this group's ability to outlast the competition. "We've been around," Cyzyk says. "There's a lot of kids in their early 20s that seem to form [bands] two months ago, [and] tonight is their third show and their CD-release party. We're not one of them."
"Right," Irvine says. "This is the long haul."