Trouble at Jinx Hotel
etween Scott Chernoff’s whispery rasp and the wasted blues of the minimal music, Molasses is a kind of urban folk troupe, singing requiems that could apply as easily to turn-of-the-millennium angst, Depression-era dirt farmers, 19th Century American West outlaws, or hard-luck characters out of some Old English folk tale. Trouble at Jinx Hotel, their fourth album, retains this timeless quality throughout its length, with a few important changes. The arrangements have grown slightly less sparse, but without forsaking the impression of bare, primal expression that has been the defining feature of every Molasses record. Additionally, Trouble at Jinx Hotel has more extensive backing vocals and female accompaniment from new member Jennifer Menard, tempering the gruff sighs of Chernoff’s vocals. The change only serves to accentuate the rawness and honesty of the central voice by positioning it against such sweet backgrounds.
The album is a logical progression from last year’s powerful epic A Slow Messe, which was simultaneously the group’s most emotionally unsettling record and their most musically complex. On Trouble, Chernoff directs his lyrical angst more clearly than ever at modern-day America, turning his usual disaffected lyrics—which often channel downtrodden street characters—into more direct attacks on American culture. “La la la, Amerika” opens the album with the memorable first line, “America is crawling with cops tonight,” and goes on to twist Emma Lazarus’ famous words: “We’re tired, Mother, and we’re poor / We’re wretched at your teeming shore / We’re hopeless and tossed by the storm / Looking for the light at your golden door.”
These dark and caustic lines are delivered in Chernoff’s typical world-weary moan, and the anger in the words is submerged by an overriding resignation. But Molasses is far from hopeless. In fact, it might be said that Trouble even contains the first signs of light breaking through the clouds. True, songs like “Amerika” and the sweet slowcore of “St. Christopher’s Blues” evince the same desperation and loneliness that has run through every Molasses record, but such emotions are lyrical and vocal only; the music often tells a different story. This is most immediately noticeable on “Sign of Judgment,” which features a delicate rolling acoustic line and whispery female harmonies soaring above Chernoff’s own low-key singing. Even the droning feedback in the background sounds positively ascendant. It’s a strikingly gorgeous pop song, especially when compared to the group’s past output. When taken in context with the rest of Trouble’s fleshed out productions, though, it fits comfortably.
Even “You Can’t Win,” perhaps the record’s most troubling song, is musically lush and gorgeous, though the lyrics—a harrowing rumination on post-9/11 America—are among Chernoff’s most distraught. “The East River is groaning,” Chernoff sighs, “underneath the Williamsburg Bridge / When airplanes are exploding.” And the music is of such haunting majesty that it both complements and contradicts such melodrama; the bluesy acoustic guitar sounds sharp and choppy amid a marsh of atmospheric feedback and whining saw. The closer, “Songs From the Basement,” explodes after its subdued opening into a “Sister Ray”-esque swirl of scraped violin, droning guitars, and shimmering cymbal crashes. And “Lynn Canyon Wedding Song” is possibly the prettiest song Chernoff has written yet, with his wavery and unsteady vocals rising above a background of acoustic guitar, violin, haunting back-up vocals, and the distinctive Theremin-like wail of the musical saw. This is also Chernoff’s most versatile vocal performance, his voice shifting from a whisper to a howl; and just listen for the way he draws out the final sound of “grave” into a croaking death-rattle that trails off to chilling nothing before he picks up the next word.
A few other songs recall the sparser Molasses of old, especially “Trouble in Mind,” on which Chernoff is accompanied almost exclusively by roaring, howling guitar feedback, occasionally breaking out into some intense and shattered approximations of a solo. It conjures a desolate landscape, littered with debris and stalked by monsters, but it’s the only point on the album (except the handful of brief and droning codas and transitions between songs) where such sentiments are expressed musically.
This is another fine album from Molasses, advancing their dark folk into more accessible territory without diluting the always-strong emotional impact of Chernoff’s pessimistic balladry. The nuanced, layered music on Trouble is used to accentuate and complement a tight set of beautifully written songs. The sweeping scope of A Slow Messe has been pared down, the lengthy atonal interludes and interjections of field recordings shortened and sequenced so that they allow the songs to flow naturally into one another. Molasses continue to develop and stretch out their sublimely fractured music with each new record, and Trouble is their most coherent statement yet.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2004-06-17