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Album Review: Jukebox the Ghost

Indie pop trio Jukebox the Ghost (Yep Roc Records) released its new self-titled album this week demonstrating a distinct artistic focus, with its fourth LP effort being the most lyrically and musically streamlined to date. Capitalizing on a propensity for catchy piano hooks, JTG compiled a tracklist of addictive, pop-oriented tunes. Long-time JTG fans might worry that the band has sold out with Jukebox the Ghost’s airtight production and generic lyricism. JTG has, however, always identified itself with pop music, and the magic of pop exists in its ability to unite a myriad of individuals who can apply their own personal experiences and interpretations to the same piece of music. Not seeking to self-indulge or alienate listeners, JTG certainly succeeded in making a highly accessible “record people could put on at parties.” And in a world where the Auto-Tune-dominated pop charts often lack musicianship, songwriting ability or vocal skill, it seems wrong to discourage an indie success such as Jukebox the Ghost from appealing to as wide an audience as possible, introducing a welcome brand of power pop to the deprived masses.

Jukebox the Ghost’s impossibly catchy opener, “Sound of a Broken Heart,” seems lyrically and sonically dissonant at first listen. An electronic reggaeton drumbeat makes way for punchy piano chords to summon a chorus blanketed in sparkling synths, all while vocalist Ben Thornewill energetically illustrates an experience with heartbreak. But perhaps the song does not aim to articulate the pain and suffering we would expect from its title lyrics. Its pre-chorus proves highly relatable, addressing the dangerous halo effect that love so often creates (“When you’re next to me, babe/You can only ever do right”). The melodic arrangement of Thornewill’s vocal in the refrain, “That’s the sound of a broken heart," suggests a sense of resolution rather than sadness. Perhaps the song actually serves to reflect the parting in the clouds that accompanies rejection and breakups, as the resulting pain ends the unhealthy pattern of putting our loved ones on pedestals and frees us to pursue new opportunities.

Tommy Siegel takes the vocal on the next track, “Made for Ending,” a similarly catchy but ultimately forgettable break-up song. While the clean, poppy tune demonstrates how JTG has perfected its fundamental recipe of piano, drums and electric guitar, the ambiguity of its lyrics leaves the listener little to grab onto emotionally (“I should’ve known/Right from the start/That we were made for ending). The subsequent “Girl” offers a little more lyrical substance with “Girl/You’re gonna take me/Back to a time when I loved and I meant it," but it falls flat in the context of the album.

The fourth track and first single released off the new album, “The Great Unknown,” provides the next highlight.  Co-written by Thornewill and singer-songwriter Greg Holden, the song has a nonspecific optimism and potent melody that, articulated by Thornewill’s soaring vocals, make for a perfect pop anthem.  The track prepares listeners to take on whatever lies ahead of them and, by a thin margin, manages to do so without seeming disingenuously trite.

The nostalgic “Long Way Home” follows, anomalously featuring both Thornewill and Siegel’s vocals on a single track. Coming together wonderfully over a metronomical beat, acoustic strumming and lullabying piano sequence, Thornewill and Siegel explore how romantic interests come in and out of our lives as we grow up—focusing on that innocent first-love experience of taking the long way home to prolong a perfect evening during the early stages of a relationship.  JTG then fast-forwards to the context of long-term commitment with “When the Nights Get Long.”  The chorus of this synth-filled ballad seems to borrow its lyrics and melody from Guster’s “Amsterdam” (“I want to write you a letter/I want to write you a song”), a notable coincidence considering JTG toured with Guster back in 2010.  While not a standout track musically, its verses do address some important complexities of maintaining long-distance relationships, particularly amidst our digital age (“A couple of words/Lit up on a screen/Yeah it’s all just make believe/And from what I’ve heard/There’s miles between/What we say and what we mean”).

JTG picks up the pace again with the “The One,” a weak attempt at an electronically driven dance track.  “Hollywood” then brings us back to the band’s characteristic, Billy-Joel-inspired piano pop—its quirky melody reminiscent of 2008’s debut, Live and Let Ghosts.

The band most successfully satisfies its artistic intentions for the LP with the anthemic “Postcard,” a heart-wrenchingly tongue-in-cheek plea for a soul-searching love interest to return (“Good idea, good idea/You keep me waiting round/I’ll just wait here until you decide to come back to town/You don’t call, that’s alright/You send me a postcard”).  Pristinely produced, “Postcard” employs JTG’s strongest assets: infectious piano-driven melodies and Thornewill’s earnest vocals.

The album winds down with “Undeniable You” and “Show Me Where it Hurts”; the former a haunting, gospel-inspired vocal exercise accompanied by an electronic organ, and the latter a touching narrative propelled by soft staccato keys and impactful strings.

With the creative guidance of major producers Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, fun.) and Dan Romer (Ingrid Michaelson, A Great Big World), Jukebox the Ghost used its fourth studio effort to confirm its identity as a pop trio with a tracklist one might expect to hear at a cool kid’s college pregame.  Top 40 ready, synth-dotted singles such as “Sound of a Broken Heart” will surely grow JTG’s following, but current fans will find plenty of familiarity in the contemplative lyrics and piano-centric hooks that make up the remainder of the release.  Whether JTG “sold out” or simply eliminated creative fluff, its neatly packaged record gives one hope for the future of popular music.

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