Have you ever wondered, “What if Steely Dan tried to make a My Chemical Romance album?” or, “What if Sufjan Stevens decided to really make a run for the pop charts?” or even, “What would ‘Moondance’ be like if Van Morrison made it right now and also wasn’t an insufferable anti-lockdown conspiracy nut?”
Well, the answer to all of those questions (more or less) has arrived in the form of We Did Not Ask for This Room, the new full-length album from OKC’s favorite jazz-rock wunderkinds Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards, who seem to be doing everything they can to remind us all of what it means to actually make progressive rock music.
See, once upon a time, the term “progressive rock” wasn’t just used to label bands that define themselves by relentless finger-tapping and blast beats and palm-muted chord syncopations over tightened-up screamo. “Progressive rock” and “prog” used to be about injecting classical proficiency and jazz-based improvisations and voicings into the rock and pop music of the time. It was created and made by musicians that had been raised or trained on technically oriented music, learning from Beethoven or Stravinsky or Parker or Gillespie, and then finding ways to apply those ideas to the largely blues-inspired rock and pop music that dominated charts in the 60s and 70s.
It was about progressing rock music, pushing it and furthering what it was capable of being.
Not everyone was into it, of course, and it quickly became synonymous with excess, lifelessness, and overwrought headiness, more concerned with showing off technical skills than with conveying anything like emotion or real, relatable experience.
So to see a group of young guys in their 20s so fully embracing the original principles of progressive rock by infusing serious jazz and classical proficiency into an inarguably modern rock and pop mentality built around genuine emotion is honestly refreshing, especially knowing that so much of their fanbase is even younger and that this new album is bound to be majorly ambitious for them.
JMPB have always had an undeniable jazz/classical streak. It’s unavoidable when a rock band boasts a full horn section and piano around a leader that majored in music performance and composition. But the majority of the band’s earlier songs and albums have come across more like a group of jazz guys that all got together to try their hands at making pop music. It always felt like the hooks and melodies came first, and then they’d build some songs around them and find some spaces here and there to inject some trumpet or some loose, jazzy drum fills. It was always there, but it wasn’t always there.
On “This Room,” however, much of that is out the window. Opener “The Clock” comes out swinging, both in meter and in aggression, and it makes a strong case for the kind of album you’re about to get: deeply technical, yet deeply emotional. But it’s the album’s second track “We” that really hits the ground running. This is the song where the band finally fully embraces jazz wholeheartedly, no more half-measured splashes of jazz here and there. This track is full-on. It’s something like a near-Calypso, with a swaying, rhythmic backbone and playful piano/brass interplay. Then it’s a heartfelt, pleading croon. Then it’s a 7/8 free-for-all.
For a record as long and sprawling as this one, these first two tracks only scratch the surface. “Overboard” is probably the most traditional track for the JMPB sound, but from there on, the entire album is a series of left turns. Sometimes it rocks outright. Sometimes they bring it way down into more minimalist territory than ever before. Sometimes it’s bursting with the kind of 60’s Euro-Jazz that makes it sound like some kind of sad heist movie soundtrack.
You might find yourself thinking that, while clearly emotionally ambitious, it’s not exactly truly experimental. Then you’ll run head-first into “Dose,” with its distorted drum loops and intensity and Manchild’s best Dave Grohl impression.
The entire band is pulling out all the stops, but there’s also a remarkably mature level of restraint throughout. Each member has learned what space they occupy within the bigger picture.
And that brings us to one of the clear stand-out elements of the record: the production.
There’s a great story about the recording and mixing of the untouchable “Darkness on the Edge of Town” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (one of the easiest and most apt comparisons to the Bastards.) They tried and tried to mix the record like Springsteen’s previous megahit “Born to Run,” but the songs just couldn’t fit into that “wall of sound” production style. They had to learn how to set each instrument into its own space and how to allow the players room to breathe.
We Did Not Ask for This Room seems like the exact same exercise. JMPB is a band known and loved for its massive, impenetrable wall of sound and instrumentation, but that’s rarely on display here. One of the most ambitious aspects of the songwriting throughout this record is the band’s commitment to restraint, saving the moments when everything explodes so that they can reach the peak of their effectiveness when they do.
It’s easy to believe that achieving that space and that masterful level of production and attention was the driving factor behind the band’s decision to record at the legendary Sonic Ranch, an opportunity they were able to realize with the help of a massive online crowd-funding effort.
And that effort paid off.
This is an album that deserves to be placed alongside the list of great, ambitious follow-ups to breakout success, albums like “Darkness” or “Tusk” or even more recently “Reflektor.”
Here’s hoping this one gets the appreciation it deserves a lot quicker than some of those classics.
Check out Johnny Manchild and the Poor Bastards premiere these new songs at the album’s official release party Nov. 5 at the Tower Theatre, where they’ll be joined onstage by a host of special guests and will be offering an exclusive, specially-designed poster for the event by artist Avery Huckabee. It’ll also be your last chance to see the Bastards before Johnny relocates his home base to Los Angeles, so this is going to be a special night that you won’t want to miss.