Still indie after all these years
Thanks in no small part to upstart record companies like San Francisco’s own 415 Records – home to The Red Rockers, Romeo Void, Translator and Wire Train – alternative or “college rock” sound was an important part of the late musical landscape. from the 1980s. And while Berkeley-based band The Jenny Thing wasn’t on 415, their sound built on the sounds of that brooding (and sometimes jangly) style.
The band – Matt Easton, Shyam Rao, Ehren Becker and Mike Phillips – released two inspired albums in the mid-90s. They performed a high-profile concert in celebration of San Francisco Pride’s 25th anniversary. Then they stopped performing live, resurfacing in 1999 to release the much-loved Nowhere near you. And then they disappeared.
But after an absence of more than two decades, The Jenny Thing is back. And they brought a brand new album, American canyon, released on June 18.
Matt Easton explains where the group has been. “You kind of want to say, ‘Well, you know, we never really broken up, ”he said with a chuckle. But the truth is, he and his four group mates have grown up. “We were active, even hyperactive, in adolescence, at 20 and 21 years old. And as we reached the beginning of adulthood, we moved on.
He says that The Jenny Thing used to be “a bunch of vans. We were fine, and on a good night’s sleep it seemed like more than the sum of its parts. There was no dramatic fall-out; the group just calmed down … The four members stayed in touch and maintained their friendships. But Rao went to medical school, and Phillips moved to San Diego for a while. For his part, after a solo release in 2001, Easton found he lacked the will to make music like he had before.
But in 2015, the band members all ended up in or near the Bay Area. “We spent a bit of time together, a bit of a group,” Easton says. And the spark that had sparked their earlier collective efforts was showing signs of returning. From there, they saw their friendships deepen, grow in ways their 20-year-old selves might not have found possible.
In some ways, the 2021 edition of The Jenny Thing picks up exactly where Nowhere near you leave behind. As enjoyable as their first two albums are, Nowhere near you seemed to signal that the band was really taking its place, with a more individualistic and distinctive sound, less influenced by The Cure, The Smiths and other British alternative rock bands.
And belatedly, American canyon continues this development. It certainly helped that Rao got closer to where Easton lives; the band’s main songwriting team was once again able to work together in a practical way. But time changes some things: the band has now put aside the traditional setup of a four-man rock band (“the singer plays easy guitar, the good guitarist plays hard guitar, and the bassist and drummer do the same on most songs, ”Easton explains) in favor of something smoother.
This approach, coupled with the time spent away from group-oriented activities, had a liberating effect on all four musicians. “Our lack of participation really took us away from all the expectations we had for ourselves,” Easton admits. “We had so much distance from ourselves as ‘consummate’ artists that we were really, really free to make this record.”
Nominally a group based on the guitar in this traditional mode, on some American canyon the songs – like the title song – the guitars aren’t even used. “It’s bluesier and heavier than anything [else] we did it, ”Easton says. “And it was all written in about 30 minutes.” He says that when he and Rao realized what they had created with this track, the future became clear, “It was like, ‘Oh, this is taking us somewhere,’ he recalls thinking. “It doesn’t suck. We better make a record! ‘”
That was in 2018. Work continued on the album, sometimes in person, other times remotely. The most of American canyon was done before the world break in mid-March of last year. Easton replaced the scratch vocal tracks with new ones, and after all seven songs were finished, he found out he wanted one more. “There was that moment where I realized, ‘It’s gonna see the world,’” Easton says. Citing the example of Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Great Chair, he says, “I’ve always thought that eight songs can be a meaningful album, if they’re the right eight songs.
Easton appreciates pop values, and one of them is brevity. American canyon comes in under 30 minutes, but not because The Jenny Thing lacked more good material. “I respect the form,” he said, “and for me, the form is four minutes. You can go to plus or minus 20 percent and after that it’s like, “Why?” “
But when there’s a right answer to that Why question, Easton is not afraid to go long. A centerpiece that nevertheless closes the album, “Waiting for the Knife” is an example of the songwriter pulling the neck. “It has a sense of both repetition and ‘cyclicality’ that takes you to those kind of higher heights,” he observes. “And then there’s almost like a rip shot. The end is meant [feel] like a crane pulled from a planet or something.
And it feels like that. The song even features a slight throwback to the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus”. But Easton doesn’t try to be too arty. “Usually,” he laughs, “we’re really happy with the three-and-a-half-minute song. Part of the album’s success is his musical balance: although he is characterized as a disciplined lyricist, Easton’s vocals are a different story. “It sounds like someone who’s a pretty good singer,” he says, “battling basic limitations with a lot of seriousness and a little wink. Sort of the approach used by those entering their forties.
Easton returns to the topic that started our discussion: “So why has The Jenny Thing really come back together? Because we took steps towards each other and all of a sudden the results were good, ”he says. “That’s why.”
Bill Kopp is a contributing writer for SF Weekly. Twitter @the_musoscribe