(Head Records, 2013)
Somebody said one time, regarding the Flaming Lips, something about the punk rockers finally taking acid (oh, here it is). I think something similar could be said about Jean Jean, in the vein of “finally the punk rockers are using calculators,” or “finally the French have discovered Thrill Jockey,” or “finally I heard something today that knocked my socks off.” See how far off the original paraphrase I got? That’s just bad writing.
Nevertheless, Jean Jean is an ultra-techy but way listenable math rock trio (fine, sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, but they’re a trio on Facebook right this second!) from France, and I’ve spoken lovingly of them before – their 2010 self-titled EP knocked, again, my socks off around October 2011. (I’ve exhausted any quips aimed affectionately at the French, so none of that here. I just love them all to death so much. For reals.) Their approach prominently features guitars, synth, and drums, and band members Sebastien Torregrossa, Edouard Lebrun, and Jean Mass wield these instruments with such precision, I could set my watch to their tunes. Although I pretty much have to be satisfied with Parisian time, but oh well.
For all their technical proficiency, Jean Jean don’t come off as stuffy or difficult, working instead to infuse their stop/start mathery with a universal sense of appeal. Add the whackiness of Parts & Labor to the coolness of Maserati and you’ve arrived in some way at Jean Jean. They want you to allow them to occupy your record collection as the “difficult” band you keep trying to turn your friends on to. But Jean Jean is the band that’s going to change everything – instead of indifference, you should expect to be repeatedly thanked. Now your friends have a “difficult” band in their collections too! And the process can repeat until the band occupies Billboard’s #1 designation. I’m sure it will happen.
It’s because that Jean Jean is, before all else, quite easy on the ears. The time signatures are battered about like a schooner in a squall, but hooks and melody abound, and none of the song lengths careen out of control into lengthy jams or anything. Opener “Coquin l’elephant” is a tightly coiled punk number masquerading as something much dandier, and “Les Orgues de Gorah” is quite enjoyable and a strong track 2. (A good album is defined by its second track, I think.) “Vaccheros” dips into proggy territory, which is just fine by me, and the wild arpeggios and swirls of “Mac” make me wish it was longer than 44 seconds. Who would have guessed it would be an album highlight? Closer “Wonder Bras” (great title, by the way, boys) does a great Do Make Say Think homage, complete with piano trills straight out of a 1980s adventure film, like, I dunno, Romancing the Stone.
There’s a subtle difference to Jean Jean’s sound this time around: the inclusion of vocals as an element on Symmetry is perhaps the biggest change that threw me off when first listening. Their masterful EP, a postgraduate class in delightful instrumental math/post rock, was firmly in mind and caused me to initially be put off, but I’ve grown to accept the change, and even enjoy it. The vocal drop on “Coquin l’elephant” is a wordless moment – a second or two of nuance that elevates the section of the song, and the song itself, above the band’s peers. It’s reminiscent of what Sigur Ros did on “Gobbledigook” – although that’s pretty much where any comparison where that band ends. It could be described as Animal Collective-ish too – but it’s become my favorite part of the song because it recalls things I wouldn’t necessarily associate with Jean Jean – it’s a pleasant surprise to hear it and be reminded.
There are other examples of vocals too. A female speaks on “Love,” but it barely registers as more than a sample, and the inclusion again works for the track. “Laser John,” however, is the true test of whether or not you think Jean Jean should use vocals, as they’re featured verse/chorus/verse-like throughout the entire song. And you know what – it’s fine. I’m on board. I prefer the instrumentals, but since it’s just one song, and they’re certainly no hacks in the singing department, I can get behind that type of experimentation.
I’ve been waiting for Symmetry for quite a while, biding my time as the band’s been busy in the studio learning how to crochet or something – maybe cook bouillabaisse. And you know what? Wait totally worth it. Exciting times ahead for Jean Jean, for sure.
RIYL: Parts & Labor, Maserati, The Cancer Conspiracy