CD Review of Rain by Joe Jackson
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Joe Jackson: Rain

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


t his worst, Joe Jackson can sound like a sniveling, overproduced toad. At his best, he can create anything from punky pop to beautiful jazz-rock soundscapes in which the piano is an extension of his voice or a rhythmic battering ram – whatever he needs. His voice can rise to terrifying levels of righteous indignation or glide down to subtle emotional depths that only adults who've made their way into the world can possibly understand.

Over the last 20 years, Jackson's output has been uneven, including a good number of greatest-hits reshufflings and side projects (anyone remember the Tucker soundtrack?). Serious fans who dug Jackson back in his 1980s heyday probably haven't been very excited since Live 1980/86, 1989's Blaze of Glory, or possibly even 1991's Laughter & Lust, an overproduced record that still had a couple gems in "Jamie G.," "Hit Single," and a vicious cover of "Oh Well," a Fleetwood Mac staple dating to the pre-Buckingham/Nicks era. If you're a Jackson fan and you didn't hear 2003's Volume 4, bashed out by the original Look Sharp band, you owe it to yourself to get it (and get one of the early pressings with the bonus live CD tucked in the back).

Which brings us to Rain, which finds Joe Jackson at his absolute, shimmering best.

Maybe Joe's playing to the crowd or trying to recreate the magic of the Night and Day era, when he was so popular among intelligent music fans that record stores couldn't keep him in stock. Maybe he's ready to strip back down to piano, bass and drums to dial back the resources needed for the next tour. Maybe, just maybe, Jackson's proven to himself that he can do it all musically, stretching himself seven ways creatively, and succeed – and now it's time to do what he does best: Play in a small band and let his piano do the talking. That's exactly what's happening on this record, and it's vintage Joe. Dial in the reverb on his voice so he doesn't sound too naked, play mostly driving midtempo pop with some jazz rhythms and chords mixed in here and there to up the sophistication factor, and…just go, sans guitar. The first two cuts, "Invisible Man" and "Too Tough," are so basic, so melodic, that they both match his best a la "It's Different for Girls." "Citizen Sane," with its mashing downbeat and rattly cymbal, might sound a little like the old-school power pop that propelled Jackson on the scene in the late 1970s, but underlying is a little Latin lupe-lu – the kind that peppered  Night and Day. 

Those are good cuts, for sure. The coolest part of Rain, though, might be the musical breadcrumbs Jackson drops in his songs, inviting us along on tour of the many and varied influences from which the accomplished songwriter/piano man draws. There's "King Pleasure Time," which borrows a little rhythmic riff from the Strangeloves' "Night Time," the classic '60s rocker covered by everyone from the J. Geils Band to Bauhaus. "Uptown Train's" smooth soul-jazz groove is straight outta Ramsey Lewis's "The In Crowd," which JJ freaks will recall he covered on 2000’s live Summer in the City album. And "So Low" somehow works a little "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" into the verse. The closer, "A Place in the Rain," is a slow shuffle in the vein of "A Slow Song," Jackson's own showstopping classic.

But most of all, the old Joe Jackson's back in the lyrics. You can't quantify on a monitor how good they are, the poems and anecdotes and perfect summations of modern life – it's not worth trying. Without hearing his expressive voice, his piano playing, the easy meshing of Jackson and original bandmates Graham Maby and Dave Houghton, the lyrics are just words on paper. Let it suffice to say that if you're a diehard fan who feels that some of Jackson's recent output (save Volume 4) has seemed like a light, sensible lunch, this album's the steak dinner you ordered back in 1991, and the waiter's serving it perfectly rare with a very nice cab on the side. Bon appetit!

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