Jean Caffeine - Geckos In The Elevator Review
Posted by C.A. Bell on 03.16.2012
Jean Caffeine might be like the Waldo of American underground music, but 411's Chris Bell argues that her new record should be on everyone's stereo. Let's find out why.
Release Date: Aug. 9, 2011 Running Time: 44:32 Label: Joe Records Genre: Alternative Country-Rock, Singer-Songwriter Key Tracks:
"Sadie Saturday Nite"
Jean Caffeine is a bit of an art vampire. Wherever something important is happening artistically, she seems to be there, somewhere off in the background. She grew up in San Francisco, at the end of Haight's first major wave and during the beginning of the punk response to it. As drummer for the punk group Pullsallama, she toured around the world opening for the Clash. After the demise of that group, Jean played with a one-album-group called Clambake. That group included future Rolling Stone editor Holly George and their sole album was produced by legendary recluse Alex Chilton. Then she moved to Austin (the timeline is a bit fuzzy, please forgive me), where she has played with members of other entrenched Austin treasures like the Gourds and Dumptruck. Oh, did I mention that she was also an on-screen zombie in one of the most important independent films in history (Richard Linklater's Slacker)? What's that you say? She was an artist on Waking Life too?
Okay, so enough history. Suffice it to say that I don't think she was on the grassy knoll, but she might have been painting whomever was. Geckos in the Elevator is Jean's fourth solo record (as best I can tell). It took only one listen to this record to wonder why she hasn't released three times that many. Caffeine exhibits a songwriting ability on par or better than most of the people listed above and a professional comfort level in the studio. The style on this record varies widely from 90's era singer-songwriter to all out country, psychedelia, and even traditional Irish folk. Jean's vocal performance is a bit like Carrie Brownstein after having borrowed some of Nico's heroin (which bodes well for those of you who remember my fawning rants about Wild Flag). It is a singing style that some might find off-putting, but I think works really well within Jean's storytelling songs.
The album features a range of topics almost as wide as Jean's stylistic tastes. Some tracks like, "Sadie Saturday Nite", seem directly autobiographical. While others, like "Love Letters from Laos", seem like love stories from Apocalypse Now, complete with Doors-esqe organ effects. I think the best tracks find Caffeine at her most likable. "Winterland" is impossibly endearing for no reason other than Jean's musing. After wasting hours having to defend terrible people that happened to be good musicians, it feels good to hear a song that actually makes you like the person singing it. This woman wrote a song about hugs. HUGS! How can anyone dislike that? The only slight I really have about the material is "Mary O'Shea". This attempt at traditional folk just doesn't seem to fit quite well within the album. That is only a slight complaint however, as Geckos in the Elevator finishes fantastically with the comforting, Lou Ree-esque "Sadie Saturday Nite" and a downright rocker in "Revolving Door".
Though the rest of us might not know it (including the woman herself), Jean Caffeine is an important part of American music culture. Not because of the places she has been or the people she has met, but because her songs document them in a truly individual way. She is a cultural historian of sorts. Oh, and the songs kick ass too.
The 411: If you don't know Jean Caffeine, that's okay. It's something that she probably takes with a certain amount of pride. Nonetheless, based on the quality of her new LP, we'll be doing everything we can to change that. This is what you should be listening to.