Some songs—like Traffic’s “Low Spark Of High-Heeled Boys,” or anything from Dire Straits’ first album—should only be played after midnight, when their mesmerizing rhythms and open spaces can lull the semiconscious into a contemplation of the cosmos. That’s the vibe that singer-songwriter Jesse Marchant has been going for with the two albums he’s released under the name JBM. It’s not that Marchant’s songs aren’t about our own mundane plane of reality; but the sound of JBM’s 2010 LP Not Even In July and his new Stray Ashes is hazy and quasi-mystical. It’s all distant shimmer and close rattle, with Marchant’s gulping, Jim James-like voice fading back and forth between the vagueness of his reverberating guitar and the crisp snap of the percussion. Even though the songs on Stray Ashes are generally shorter than the six-minute mini-epics that dominated Not Even In July, they’re not especially tighter or clearer. If anything, Marchant seems like he’s working even harder to swallow his words, and elude being directly understood.
That emphasis on atmosphere over clarity works against JBM only inasmuch as it’d be hard to hand someone a copy of Stray Ashes and say, “Check out track two; it’ll floor you.” The album is mainly full of arresting elements: the Joy Division-like rat-a-tat that rises and envelops the end of “Ferry,” the moaning slide guitar of “You Always Keep Around,” the muted pop of the bass on “Forests,” and so on. If Marchant can ever figure out how to work these elements into songs that communicate something more than just a mood, then he could have his own “Down By The River,” his “Year Of The Cat,” his “The Blower’s Daughter”—his after-midnight, universe-unto-itself classic. Stray Ashes is very good album regardless, with a fair amount of variety even in its drone, and an overall texture and tone that invites listeners to step into a dark but frequently beautiful world. There’s no denying that Marchant can construct some amazing, well-decorated spaces. Now he just needs to populate them.