Dust Jacket describe themselves as frenetic, lyric-centric, indie rockers with a healthy dose of shimmer and bombast. I would add that they are bright, funny, personable, musically talented, well-read, politically knowledgeable and involved, determined, laid back, cool, kind to the elderly, patient with randoms, helpful but not patronizing to inexperienced and slightly lame reviewers, and able to accomplish complex tasks with only a magnetized guitar pick and antique maps. Okay, I can’t really attest to that last attribute; but I met up with front man Conan Zimmerman and lead guitarist Shane Cook in their home base in Phoenix, Arizona and I positively affirm the rest of it.
Zimmerman writes lyrics and music that juxtapose uncomplicated words and tonalities in ways that resonate and insinuate themselves into your subconscious. Cook takes acoustic compositions and transforms them into driving rock, adding rhythms and sonic structure. For Conan Zimmerman the process of writing requires introversion, which seems to be at variance with his role as a charismatic front man. The contradiction provides the creative tension that makes his compositions so engaging. Consider this quatrain from their A-Side, “The Ballerina and the Bombardier,” which leads off and is representative of their latest album of new material “More Greek Myths.”
“You are point shoes and a parasol I am an abacus and alcohol You are amethyst made aerosol I am arithmetic and adderall”
Pairing “parasol” with “adderall,” even for those with attention deficit disorder, is the sort of whimsy that makes the lyrics memorable and worth listening to carefully. Like much of the material on “More Greek Myths,” the song is catchy for its simple melodic theme. It finds its way into a refrain overlaid with another refrain, like the stichomythia between tragic hero and Greek chorus, and finds resolution with a resounding and strident guitar verse of dominant chords. Zimmerman and Cook are not tragic hero and Greek chorus, and they don’t finish each other’s sentences, but they have been playing together for more than 15 years in various guises (they were founding members of Dust Jacket 8 years ago), and they easily complement each other’s musical phrasing and beats.
“More Greek Myths” represents years of work, and the tracks are consistently engaging. With an obvious depth of material, they could have easily chosen any of the other tracks for an A-Side. All are carefully crafted, with the sound mix achieved by bassist Dan Spohn, and final mastering done by Roger Siebel, who has worked with groups we’ve all heard of. One surprise is that while the mix blends Zimmerman’s voice as an instrument, none of the tracks are lyrics-forward. The CD release includes a sheet of lyrics, but on first listen some of the vocals are difficult to discern; and that is surprising because the lyric poetry of their songs is one of Dust Jacket’s major strengths. When albums were only released on vinyl, they often included lyrics on the cover or as an insert. One would listen to the album several times, reading along. I find that today I listen to downloads as single tracks, and almost never read the lyrics. The good news is that nowadays it’s easier for bands to record and distribute music. The bad news is that we often fail to give new music a chance. Dust Jacket benefits from repeated plays, and it would help to read along. (If they don’t jump out at you, the lyrics should be on their website by the time you read this at dust-jacket.com). When I first heard “More Greek Myths” I enjoyed it, but it didn’t really grab me. After listening for awhile, and reading the lyrics, I found the songs unexpectedly going through my mind. The arithmetic and adderall worked.
Dust Jacket selected “The Same In My Boots” for the B Side. It is a protest song addressing a problem with illegal immigrants – and I don’t mean undocumented workers. The problem in Arizona is with a very specific individual who was born in Massachusetts, immigrated to Phoenix from Nevada, and failed to make any attempt to understand or assimilate into the local culture. Characterizing the entire being of an undocumented worker (who is usually Hispanic) as “illegal” when he’s violated a bureaucratic visa requirement has a tinge of racism, but the guy I’m talking about is definitely an “illegal” through and through. It cost the people paying taxes in Phoenix (many of whom are not US citizens) over $40 million to settle lawsuits against him, and he consistently violates the US constitution.
His name is Sherriff Joe Arpaio. After the government withdrew federal funding from illegal alien Joe Arpaio, a bunch of wingnuts in the state legislature passed a law call SB1070, which required local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The result is a racist bill that many police have denounced, and which the federal courts have (so far) deemed unconstitutional.
Artists cancelled shows in Arizona as a protest against SB1070, but that was not a viable option for an unsigned band with day jobs in Phoenix. Instead, they joined other artists on a compilation produced by The Phoenix New Times. “The Same In My Boots” is compelling and fun (I was tickled to see the governor, who was recently reelected on a campaign of falsehoods and stupidity, referred to as “La Chupacabra”). In the tradition of protest songs, it is plaintive and acoustic. For now, the only place to hear the song is The Phoenix New Times CD and here, and we can expect to hear another recording soon that is more fleshed out musically.
You may have heard Dust Jacket at the 2008 CMJ Festival in Brooklyn. They have played with some amazing groups in their hometown of Phoenix-groups such as Vampire Weekend, Cold War Kids, Frightened Rabbit, Handsome Furs-but sadly the indie music scene in Phoenix is less vibrant than one would expect of a large city. For now, Dust Jacket plays small venues locally, and hopes to spread its recorded music nationally. They suffered a setback when, just after finishing the new album, their drummer decided to spend two years in Italy learning to be a sommelier. But soon after drummer Sam Valdivia came to round out the group, and the five (I think keyboardist Ari Morris is the only one I haven’t mentioned yet) now label themselves as “people playing instruments like typewriters.”
I enjoyed Dust Jacket the first time I heard them. Now after repeated listening, I enjoy the music even more. The lyrics are a pleasure to read, giving us small unforeseen pleasures as they are accompanied by an occasional unexpected chord change or syncopation. And the more one listens, the more one gets from the material. If you don’t already do this with new music, I urge you to try an experiment. Listen to Dust Jacket more than once. If you put a little work into listening to them, you’ll start to get back all the work they put into making this music.
The Ballerina and the Bombardier
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem123/01 The Ballerina and the Bombardier.mp3
The Same in My Boots
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem123/02 The Same in My Boots.mp3