In Brief: An intriguing side project from Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, which reaffirms my belief that he can write disarming songs in just about any genre.
It’s a curious thing when a member of your favorite band suddenly strikes out on a solo career, or establishes a side project with some other musicians. The reasons for this can range from “Had some spare time and decided to screw around in the studio” to “Serious creative differences”. And it seems like fans are often ready to assume the worst when this happens – “Is he leaving the band?” “Are they breaking up?” Even those savvy enough to pay attention and notice that their favorite band is still together and still on good terms will probably wonder: “Well shoot, if those songs are good enough to charge money for, why aren’t they on the band’s albums?” That goes double when the artist branching out just so happens to be the band’s lead singer. Sometimes these folks get so iconically associated with the bands that made them famous, it’s hard to imagine them apart from the band, or vice versa.
Jars of Clay has been my favorite band for, oh I don’t know, roughly half of my life now. And it’s only this year that I’ve actually had to deal with those sorts of questions about this particular band. Seemingly out of nowhere (or perhaps there was some advance warning, but with the demise of Jarchives, I find myself lacking a good source of intel on the band), their lead singer Dan Haseltine announced the formation of a side project known as The Hawk in Paris. I guess the timing was right. They’ve been doing this with the same four members for seventeen years now, and despite a very early lineup change before they even got big, not one of the four members has done much outside the band, nor has the band taken any significant breaks that I’m aware of. They’re coming off of back-to-back albums released very close together, and they’ve even done a nostalgic acoustic tour overlooking their entire back catalogue this year. Who could blame them if this is all a lead-up to some time off? And if that’s the case, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to hear what’s on some of these guys’ minds when they’re not specifically writing for Jars of Clay. That situation proved interesting when dc Talk did it ten years ago, though I’m hoping that unlike that example, one or more members going solo doesn’t lead to an indefinite hiatus that everyone’s afraid to label a breakup.
Rumors of Jars’ future notwithstanding, I gave The Hawk in Paris a spin with an open mind, and what I found was a particularly enjoyable, and engagingly human, synthpop record that gives Dan the space to indulge his geeky 80s nostalgia and his most melancholy songwriting tendencies all at once. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Jars’ 2009 release, The Long Fall Back to Earth, by far the most electronic and relationship-oriented album they’ve done. Imagine that, but more fully committed to being an electronic act instead of a rock band, bringing the most danceable tendencies to the forefront on the faster songs and turning the angst up a good deal on the slower ones. I predict that most anyone who got into Jars because they were a youth/college group favorite and the poster boy for crossover Christian rock there for a while might say, “No, thanks.” But then there are fans like me who have always been able to detect a more relational side to Dan’s songwriting, a knack for finding the grace of God even in the most heart-rending moments of misunderstanding and conflict between human beings. It’s there as far back as my personal favorite Jars album, the highly underrated Much Afraid, a lot of it resurfaced on Good Monsters, and even on their so-called “worship album” The Shelter, the ability to love and care for our fellow human beings were a central theme. Now take away from that any overt spiritual agenda that might be expected by the Christian radio gatekeepers or the CCM fans who still regard their first album as their best (though I know Jars isn’t concerned with such things – I assume Dan just figures out for himself which ones are universal enough to work as “Jars songs” and which are more personal and thus more likely to be misunderstood by the wider fanbase), and just let a guy wear his heart on his sleeve. Sometimes it’s goofy, sometimes it’s heartbreaking to the point of being uncomfortable, but it’s the sort of honesty I’ve always appreciated in Dan’s songwriting. If tracks like “Closer” and “Safe to Land” rank among your favorite Jars songs, then you’ll probably find a lot to like here.
The Hawk in Paris is a three-man ensemble, of course (never mind that the somewhat confusing band name was lifted from a half-century-old jazz album by Coleman Hawkins), so it would be silly to credit Dan for all of it. Matt Bronleewe, the long-lost member of Jars who left the group during their college years, got replaced by Matt Odmark, and went on to become a noted record producer, is reunited with Dan, and I’ll hazard a wild guess and say that it’s Bronleewe’s influence that brings a lot of pop savvy to the forefront, judging from what he’s done with artists like dc Talk and Plumb. The third element is actually another producer, Jeremy Bose, whose name I’ve also seen turn up on a number of CCM records throughout my college and young adult years, and who probably brings a lot of the synth wizardry to the table. (The group’s sound has been cited as somewhere between old favorites like Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys, and newer synthpop acts such as Owl City. I’ll throw Paper Route in there as well.) I can’t be certain exactly who does what other than Dan singing lead, obviously, but the three of them have created a cohesive, nostalgic landscape (mostly digitized, though with some “real” instruments breaking through here and there) for the seven songs on their debut EP, His + Hers. It’s the kind of thing where I know reactions will vary widely among Jars fans, perhaps even with the majority not caring for it due to the purposefully dated musical style, but as indulgent side projects go, this is one of the better ones I’ve heard in recent years, and I hope it’s a sign of an eventual full-length LP to come.
1. The New Hello (Hers)
The group members had an in-joke while they were recording these songs – something they called “The John Hughes effect.” Basically anything that sounds like it could have been in the soundtrack to a climactic movie scene taking place at a high school dance in the 80s. This song, with its synth melody all hearts-a-flutter, certainly qualifies. You can just picture all of those awkward teenagers wearing bright, gaudy colors, the room all gender-segregated as awkward high school dances are prone to be: “It was girls on one side, and boys on the other/No one was dancing or looking for love.” The story Dan tells through his lyrics details a nameless “he” and “she” who are on opposite sides of the room, second-guessing themselves and afraid to take that step towards each other, and there’s a sort of sad, understated tragedy to this candy-coated slow dance that no one is dancing to, because it’s about the opportunities we lose out on due to not wanting to take the risk. I’ve you were the shy guy or girl in college who just couldn’t get up the nerve to tell that attractive member of the opposite sex how you felt, then you’ll probably relate. It may sound strange for adult musicians well into their 30s to be angsting over long-lost would-be-lovers from high school, but it’s Dan’s ability to offer insight into the psychological behind this situation that ensures there’s still a lesson in it for us old fogies looking back.
2. Put Your Arms Around Me
Some interesting social commentary takes place on one of the more upbeat, danceable tracks that the Hawk has to offer. Jeremy Bose whips up a synth loop that seems to be constantly cycling up, giving the song a sense of constant motion, yet if you listen carefully you’ll notice that it takes a while to build up to a full climax, with the simply but catchy chorus actually showing a bit of restraint at first. This puts the focus on the lyrics, which are all about the social dysfunction of thinking we’re too cool to let ourselves feel anything. It’s not a romantic love song per se; more of a song about how terrible we are at connecting to our fellow human beings, when left to our own devices. (This is especially ironic in a day and age where we have the kinds of “devices” that theoretically keep us connected to the people we love 24/7, though that’s not an issue specifically addressed by the song – I like to think it’s there between the lines, since electronic music is often accused of being cold and soulless and they’re purposefully using it to create the opposite effect.) Thinking back to Jars songs like “Weapons” and “Closer”, this one could have fit perfectly into The Long Fall Back to Earth and I’d have never noticed the difference. That being said, the layers upon layers of keyboard and vocal effects overloading the system won’t be for everyone, even those who liked Jars during their poppiest era. Still, I think this one could have some potential as a single. It’s thought-provoking and insanely catchy at the same time.
3. Curse the Love Songs
If “The New Hello” was the soundtrack to a dance that made you want to kick yourself for not asking that cute girl to dance with you, then this is the soundtrack to the long, lonely drive home afterwards. The slow, airy piano and moody synth melody crank the melancholy up to 11, though Dan’s vocals and lyrics are more empathetic than angsty here, as if putting a hand on the poor kid’s shoulder and saying, he’s been there. “Have you thought you’d never breathe again?/Did the truth make a killer out of friend?/And in your heart, feel the weight that things will never change?/You’re not alone.” A lot of songs written from this perspective, especially from well-meaning adults in the CCM industry, would probably jump to “It’s gonna be alright” all too quickly, but here Dan is far from offering pat answers, and instead he simply offers a chance to go ahead and have a good cry, and to take it out at those other naive love songs that don’t know what the heck they’re talking about. Maybe that unattainable high school crush is really just a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things, but a dude’s gotta learn to deal with heartbreak at some point, and this devastatingly beautiful song is one of those that I can see being comforting, simply by acknowledging that getting it all out of your system and shutting the world out to sleep it off for a little while is all part of the process. I’ve been there, too.
4. Between the World and You
I will admit to not liking this song too much the first few times through. It seemed to struggle to get going, its melody seemed to bend in odd ways that I didn’t like, and its lyrics seemed too sparse, with overly simplistic rhymes (Fear/near/here, for example, and that’s just the first verse, and there are only two brief ones and a one-line chorus). After a while I started to dig the vibe with the cool, dark bass that gives the song its melodic anchor, and the heavy programming that shows up for about a third of the song to add sudden drama. All of the song’s bittersweet hues give it great texture, once the full picture has been painted. (I think I even hear an electric guitar here – though its sound has been tweaked to match the bluish-grey landscape.) And its message of dedication to protect someone from harm, though simplistic, is effective – “I will stand between the world and you.” I just wish it had a little more to flesh it out.
5. Science Fiction
Sometimes a song that is quite silly on the surface can reveal a lot going on emotionally underneath. (A lot of Barenaked Ladies songs are like that, actually.) This one unfolds much in that manner, seeming like little more than a series of oddball metaphors for a relationship that reference every sci-fi B-movie in existence: “You’re a robot army sent to end my race/Like a sea swallowing cities, I’ll be gone without a trace/And in your chronic, post-apocalyptic state of mind/You will leave the Earth behind.” The fact that it’s set to a starry, cosmic dance track makes it even easier to believe that this is all fluff just for the sake of having fun. But when it culminates in the blunt declaration that “Our love is science fiction” in the chorus, I can’t help feel sorry for the poor, put-upon old sap who is just now waking up to the reality of his affection being unrequited, and possibly the hell she’s put him through in their relationship as she’s slowly figured that out. Some won’t be able to get past the inherent goofiness of this song (and I know Dan’s work well enough to figure that he has to have done this on purpose), while others will think, “Yes! That’s exactly it! Just when I was starting to think I was the only one whose relationship was like Weird Science!”
6. Simple Machine
It takes guts to write a song about how the heart is complicated and “love is still a mystery” in this day and age. Those who hear this song and dismiss it as stating the obvious will definitely be missing the tragedy that’s present in the details. Despite a simple appearance on the surface, with the basic strum of an acoustic guitar, the sort of “rubbery” bass that I used to like to make fun of when I heard it in 80s songs, and bubbly synth notes gliding up and down with the rudimentary chord progression, Dan’s words in this song will cut like a knife if you really listen to them. He starts off questioning the architect who designed the human heart, asking why it’s gonna be so darn fickle and difficult to please, and before you know it he’s lamenting the kind of problems that can only be known by someone experiencing the decay of a long-term relationship: “Dinner conversations after years of getting cold/The things that made us fall in love in houses that we sold”, and then later, the real clincher: “We cite longevity as a reason we’re still here/Is another anniversary just another day, I fear?” It’s the same gut-wrenching feeling I got from “Safe to Land” once I started to figure out what that song is about, and for his sake, I sure hope this one isn’t written from first-hand experience. It’s all too common, though, even among long-running married couples who look like they’re living the perfect life with the picket fence and 2.4 kids and whatnot – somewhere along the way, you take for granted the fact that love was once effortless, you stop putting the work into it, and life slowly degrades into mind-numbing boredom, all because we think love is easier to keep alive than it actually is. As heartbreaking as this is to hear, I’m glad someone had the courage to go there. The coda might drag out repetitions of “your love is still a mystery to me” for longer than it needs to, but that’s forgivable in a song that otherwise knows how to grab my attention and not let go.
7. The New Hello (His)
I would call this a remix of the EP’s opening track, but which version begat which is actually a bit of a fuzzy issue, given that the “Hers” version was started, abandoned in favor of this more beat-heavy mix, and then rediscovered and completed at the eleventh hour (har har). Ultimately, they felt that both versions had their own unique character and were worth hearing. I prefer “Hers”, and I mostly think this one’s just for fun, though I can appreciate its self-conscious silliness. The line “Girls on one side, boys on the other”, heavily digitized, is shoved right up front as the main hook (though strangely, it drops out of a few spots in between the verse and chorus where the ear expects them to go back to it). I’m not entirely sure what makes this version more masculine – it’s a got a streetwise beat, I guess, or at least what would resemble one in pop music’s take on hip-hop circa the early 90s. The synths aren’t doing anything to help give it a Y chromosome, as they have that sort of cheery whistling sound to them that strangely reminds me of chirping birds and swingsets and Shanice telling me she loves my smile. What’s funny about this is that it effectively transports me back to my high school years (even if my style back then was more grunge than R&B, and that’s only because I was already a flannel-wearing slacker when it happened to come into fashion… but I digress). I can get into the swing of it, but after a while it feels like it needs a little more oomph to pull it across the finish line – the beat’s a little too laid back and the vocals way too auto-tuned to make the lyrics as relatable as the “Hers” version did. Points for thinking different, though – most remixes tend to suck the entire structure out of a song in favor of repeating a single hook ad nauseum, and this one at least leaves the songwriting intact.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The New Hello (Hers) $1.50
Put Your Arms Around Me $2
Curse the Love Songs $2
Between the World and You $1
Science Fiction $1.50
Simple Machine $1.50
The New Hello (His) $.50
Originally published on Epinions.com.