Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Jodi Blue Heron

Sooper Records
2021
Sooper Records
2021

Jodi is an alter ego for singer-songwriter Nick Levine, who was a multi-instrumentalist in Pinegrove up through last year’s Marigold. Listen through their debut album Blue Heron without any prior knowledge and you could probably figure that much out. An air of pensive melancholia, loosely drawling vocals, diaristic lyrics about deep feelings and fateful interactions: The imprint of Levine’s former band is unmistakable in these songs, even more so than on Jodi’s 2017 EP Karaoke — so much so that it has altered my perception of Pinegrove’s songwriting process. Maybe Evan Stephens Hall’s bandmates contributed more to the group’s signature sound than I realized?

Yet Jodi is also Levine’s own thing, with its own twist on literate, sensitive indie rock. Levine, who is nonbinary, calls their music “queer country,” which, sure, OK. There’s certainly some twang in there. But as with the similarly branded al Riggs, mostly I hear Jodi as part of a long line of gorgeously depressive underground rock bands. Some of them, like Wilco and Songs: Ohia, are rootsy. Some of them — like slowcore legends Red House Painters, vibey emo pioneers American Football, and the various projects of indie-pop auteur Phil Elverum — are not. Levine is operating in an emo-adjacent folk-rock space somewhere near Slaughter Beach, Dog’s Jake Ewald, Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, and Lomelda’s Hannah Read (whose brother and collaborator Tommy co-produced Blue Heron in the Reads’ hometown of Silsbee, Texas). Collectively, it is the sound of twentysomethings working through heavy feelings one tastefully sighing guitar ballad at a time.

For Levine, that process involved multiple encounters with a great blue heron, which led to an epiphany about chance’s role in creative expression and, more broadly, the meaning of life. Levine first crossed paths with the bird while writing these songs, an experience that “pulled me out of a spiral,” they explain in the album’s official bio. “Maybe you’re not in the amount of control that you think and that’s actually a good thing. There’s so much life happening outside of your head and that’s really grounding to remember.” Another heron showed up during the recording sessions for the album, which Levine took as a sign that they were on the right track. The impact was so profound that they got the heron tattooed on their back and climbed into a freezing pond in Chicago — where they’re now based full-time after years shuttling between the Midwest and East Coast — to create the album’s cover art.

This origin story is laid out at the end of the album on the title track, which culminates like so: “Great blue heron in the lake swimming/ You’re on your back now/ Trying to find a place to meet friends/ But they’re all closing down/ But is it really so bad to be floating around/ Come on Jodi, get it right/ Work it out/ Don’t let me down.” With that, the gentle, spiky arpeggios that have carried the music along are joined by a lush procession of sounds — dark-tinted electric guitar, delicate piano twinkles, swelling pedal steel — before the whole arrangement scales back into nothingness. It’s a wistful and beautiful finale, one of many spectacular sequences on the album where the music says at least as much as the words.

Despite the big ideas at play, Levine’s lyrics are more often intimate and interpersonal, sketching out scenes defined by anxiety and longing. Their first words on the album are “You say something bad/ You did it for a laugh you didn’t get.” By the end of that song — a track called “Power” that rocks harder than its sparse, plaintive arrangement lets on — Levine is “reaching with my hands out, looking for something powerful and soft.” Lead single “Go Slowly” starts with a direct address — “Does this party stress you out?” — and rolls along tenderly from there, Levine’s vocal melodies easing up against the chord progression with uncommon grace. The album continues like this for a concise 29 minutes, Levine teasing out whatever meaning they can through vividly rendered dialogue and imagery. It feels like a coming-of-age arthouse movie in miniature.

In that way and many others, this music echoes Levine’s previous work with Pinegrove. It’s natural to see Blue Heron as an extension of that band’s small galaxy of satellite acts or even an alternative for former fans who were turned off by Hall’s confusing scandal a few years ago (what up, Matty Healy). But as with fellow Pinegrove affiliate Nandi Rose’s Half Waif, Jodi is far too accomplished to be brushed off as a side project for someone else’s band. For such a shadowy and interior songwriter, Levine sounds very much ready for the spotlight.

Blue Heron is out 7/16 on Sooper Records.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Pop Smoke’s Faith.
• Clairo’s Sling.
• Wavves’ Hideaway.
• John Mayer’s Sob Rock.
• Kevin Drew’s debut K.D.A.P. album Influences.
• WILLOW’s Lately I Feel Everything.
• Midwife’s Luminol.
• Runnner’s Always Repeating.
• U-Roy’s posthumous Solid Gold U-Roy.
• Nathaniel Rateliff’s live album Red Rocks 2020.
• Chet Faker’s Hotel Surrender.
• Karen Black’s Cass-McCombs-involved Dreaming Of You (1971–1976).
• Tones And I’s Welcome To The Madhouse.
• Bizzy Banks’ Same Energy.
• Ade With Connan Mockasin’s It’s Just Wind.
• Moon King’s The Audition.
• Ida Mae’s Click Click Domino.
• The Zolas’ Come Back To Life.
• Barenaked Ladies’ Detour de Force.
• William Tyler & Luke Schneider’s Understand EP.
• Cakes da Killa’s Muvaland Vol. 2 EP.
• A Place To Bury Strangers’ Hologram EP.
• Smile Machine’s Bye For Now EP.
• LUGGAGE’s Happiness EP
• The Esther Rose covers EP How Many More Times.

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