“Literal interpretation,” writes Jennifer Rycenga, an essayist who likes to address the intersection of politics, sexuality, music and religious experience, “whether of a scared text or of music, is, by definition, a reductive process, craving to fix meaning into a single hermetically sealed frame. Literalism chokes whatever language it seizes, snapping off resonances and relations between words and between ideas: like clear-cutting, it creates a universe that is easily and immediately comprehensible, but only because it’s pathetically denuded.”
I like that, and I’d been thinking about it for awhile before someone laid the Joggers’ self-titled debut album on me. The application of literalism to pop, however well-intentioned, is a surefire prophylactic to enjoying its innumerable and not always easily qualified pleasures. With a band like the Joggers, whose lyrics read like candle-staring automatic writing, you should just savor the way amino acids can connect with each other in the primordial pop soup to create something exquisitely meaningful. But don’t go listening for meaning itself. Listening to music isn’t supposed to be an exercise in diagramming sentences, anyway. Listen for a feeling instead.
Rycenga’s thoughts on literalism are liberating for me because I tend to hear voices in pop music as just another instrument. I have a tough time picking out lyrics no matter how clearly enunciated or prominently mixed. So unless there’s a lyric sheet in the liner notes and I’m where I can read it, the timbre and the phrasing of the vocals, and the voice itself, are more my portal into meaning in the song than the meaning of the words themselves.
That makes for a good fit with a band like the Joggers for at least two reasons. The lead vocalist (it could be Darrell Bourque, Murphy Kasiewicz, Jake Morris or Ben Whitesides—all four Joggers members claim vox duties) sings in a lazy warble that perfectly matches the clean guitar lines. It fits just right.
As for the lyrics, they’re pretty stream-of-consciousness (there’s a lyric sheet included) and pleasantly arbitrary in some ways, even when all but the most literal-minded among us are comfortably reconciled by now to lyrics that don’t really make sense when you read them the way you’d read a newspaper article. Joggers’ vocals succeed more as instrument than poetry, but certainly way more poetry than narrative. They just sound good, and leave it at that, even if you don’t know what they’re telling you and even if it doesn’t really matter. They evoke something in fits and starts, but it’s basically up to the listener to decide what.
Yet there’s more to recommend the Joggers than just oblique lyrical suggestions pinging around these tracks like TV signals returning from 30 years in space. A far more interesting dialogue is taking place between the basic instruments (voice included), of Kasiewicz and Whitesides, scrappy but crystal-clear guitars and the band’s underhanded way of underlining verses early in the song with a muted vocal refrain that gets developed later on. The first two songs on the album, “The Devil Wears Earplugs” and “Back to the Future” jangle like the best in artsy British pop but open up toward the end into warm, harmonic vocal surges.
“Back to the Future,” in particular, makes heart-melting use of shape-note singing, a technique with roots that go all the way back to colonial-era American music and beyond, weaving harmonized vocal strands into a contrapuntal whole reminiscent of English psalmody.
And it’s OK to call this pop music these days? Why, friend, it’s wonderful. And I just got my new favorite Portland band.
The Joggers play Jay’s Upstairs Friday, Oct. 18, with the fun-tastic No Fi Soul Rebellion. 10 PM. Cover TBA.