AMN Reviews: Jack O’ the Clock – Leaving California (2021; Cuneiform Records)

Leave it to Jack O’ the Clock to produce a song-oriented album that ostensibly is quirky folk-rock, but manages to provide a further set of layers to pull back. Perhaps the foremost modern dark Americana outfit, this quintet’s latest is titled based on bandmembers Damon Waitkus (vocals, guitars, hammer dulcimer) and Emily Packard’s (violin) decision to leave their long-term home in California for the East Coast. While Waitkus and Packard, a married couple, moved relatively recently, these songs were written over the last few years. Their bandmates, Jason Hoopes (bass), Jordan Glenn (drums), and Thea Kelley (vocals) remained in California and the group finished the album remotely.

Perhaps this distance gave lyricist Waitkus some time to reflect, as the mood to these songs is melancholy and yet also oddly exhibiting more joy than the group’s previous outings. The lyrics of the title track, for example, express a psychological burnout with the stresses of living in the Golden State, a place of excess, expense, long commutes, and a strange disconnectedness. There is a resigned acceptance that their destination is better, not perfect, which is perhaps representative of most choices we make – the tradeoff of one set of problems for a more acceptable set of problems.

Also true to form, some of the songs call upon disturbing imagery combined with a strange sense of humor. The Butcher and A Quarter-Page Ad are examples. In contrast, Leaving California lacks the longer, involved chamber-rock instrumental breaks that are present on the group’s previous releases. Nonetheless, the musical sophistication remains, in more subtle forms. For instance, the vampy rhythm of The Butcher is accentuated by a plethora of different instruments trading off twisted motifs as well as a variety of other styles represented across its passages.

In sum, this is a departure from Jack O’ the Clock’s more overtly avant-prog oeuvre and yet is in line with the spirit of their previous work. Well done.