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Jaill - Traps

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Artist: Jaill

Album: Traps

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Jul. 16, 2012

Like many of the indie rock outfits to achieve mainstream success (Phoenix, Franz Ferdinand, a host of British flavors-of-the-month) in the past decade or so, Jaill take most of their cues from late-1970s New Wave pop. The guitars are clean and angular, the rhythms tight and danceable, and the vocals just nerdy and nasal enough to conjure up a bespectacled Elvis Costello-like frontman. To their credit, the Milwaukee trio has honed a recognizable sound, one that elicits quick interest and suggests next-big-thing potential. Having a sound, however, is not the same thing as being able to write songs or putting together a compelling album. While pleasant enough on a superficial level, the band’s third full-length, Traps, falls short of the kind of coherent, compelling vision that would lift them up from intermittently-engaging mediocrity.

While Jaill’s brand of power pop is instantly familiar, it gains in interest from being just slightly off-kilter. Melodies never end up going quite where one would expect, lead guitar patterns and synth flourishes emerge at random, and jerky rhythms prevent the listener from settling into to a comfortable groove. At its best (opening track “Waste a Lot of Things”), this approach results in energetic and novel cuts that breathe new life into guitar-driven pop, a perennially moribund genre. Even at their most conventional and accessible (“Everyone’s a Bitch,” “Haunting in My Home”), they can certainly hold their own with their more commercial labelmates (The Shins).

These strengths, however, are also the band’s limitations. Sometimes, being just slightly off-kilter or idiosyncratic is indistinguishable from simply writing weak material. Furthermore, Traps seems to be at a loss for enough ideas to fill an entire album, even at its short running length. The invariably uptempo tracks threaten monotony, and attempts to vary texture and approach (the acoustic “Horrible Things (Make Pretty Songs)” and “Madness”) come off as demo versions of their electrified counterparts rather than demonstrating a wider range. The reliance on rhythm over memorable melodies likewise grows tiresome, as what comes across as energetic and punchy at the album’s outset sounds rather plodding and obnoxious (“While You Reload”) by its end.

The most crucial lack here, however, is one of personality. Much like the band’s songwriting, Vinnie Kircher’s vocals have an oddly detached, mechanical feel to them; his delivery is completely invariable and sounds overly processed. His lyrics, meanwhile, barely register, dealing in a rather banal way with familiar themes of insecurity and relationships.

Despite their strengths, Jaill fall into a common bind, in which initial appeal or selling point — a punchy, ear-grabbing sound and readymade “personality” — comes at the expense of a more nuanced, variable, and substantial art. While the first may in time develop into the second, the two imperatives can also be at cross purposes, as seems to be the case on Traps: the trademark sound becomes a paradoxical mark both of individuality and superficiality, giving rise to a quick appeal that exhausts itself all too quickly.

By Michael Cramer

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