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Molasses - Trouble at Jinx Hotel

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Artist: Molasses

Album: Trouble at Jinx Hotel

Label: Alien8

Review date: Jul. 11, 2004

The New Republic’s David Hajdu recently commented on the lack of popular protest songs, the domestic opponents of the war in Iraq having yet to make a mark on the popular consciousness similar to “Blowin’ in the Wind,” let alone having created the sort of symbiosis between art and politics that led John Lennon to consider releasing 45” singles on cardboard in order to get his message to a waiting public. Many artists do not even seem to be trying, preferring instead free mp3s or tiny, self-released compilations; Thurston Moore’s Protest Records being perhaps the most famous outlet. “What good is the most impassioned challenge to the Iraq war on its own, in the face of public indifference,” Hajdu asked. “The protest singers of the 1960s acted out of a belief that a song could change the world. Their children have taken note that wars are raging in the same old way.”

Hajdu’s right, at least insofar as the lack of a popular anti-war anthem indeed puzzles many people. The question really has two answers, though: either there just isn’t an audience for contemporary protest music, or there is an audience for ’60s style rock and contemporary protest music just lacks the features that might make it popular. The style, whatever else one may say about it, rarely takes time or care when getting its point across, the tradeoffs required to get an entire rally singing the same verses are all too evident. Which doesn’t mean that simple, effective protest songs don’t have their place. It means only that some things take an entire album, or the better part of an evening in concert, to communicate.

Molasses’ Trouble at Jinx Hotel certainly hesitates while making its point. I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the half-speed compositions and elliptical lyrics were written to keep popular sentiment at bay, but the songs take time to work. (That statement applies doubly: one has to listen to the album a couple of times to begin absorbing the meaning, and the songs themselves stretch to five-plus minutes.) The complexity of what Scott Chernoff, primary songwriter and coordinator of the fairly loose Molasses collective, has to say about America in the wake of September 11 makes Trouble at Jinx Hotel that strangest kind of protest music: the sort one never would hear at a protest.

And that’s probably the best and worst thing that I can say about it. Chernoff’s work can be thoughtful: His loose compositions allow for beautiful instrumental breaks, and while his lyrics strive too hard for poetic description he does have a refreshing way of using metaphors about September 11 and the war in Iraq that emphasize the human scale of his subject. “You Can’t Win,” written just after September 11, describes a skyline falling “like limbs,” while a line from “La La Amerika” tells of how the US “put our fists through the windows of the world.” This attempt to personalize the September 11 tragedy and the political response to it no doubt owes quite a bit to the Americana folk tradition; folk music, if nothing else, at least has a trove of vivid, overlooked metaphors.

Too bad, however, that the line between thoughtful and ponderous is such a fine one. Trouble at Jinx Hotel gravitates from fine, sweeping tracks like “Saint Christopher’s Blues,” and “Miss Peaches’ Pawnshop,” (an adaptation of a Hilary Peach poem) to covers of folk standards that either bury Chernoff’s off-key vocals under layers of hideous musique concrete (“Trouble in Mind”) or stretch a simple repetition well past the point of a listener’s boredom (“Sign of Judgement”). Saying that Chernoff and company merely want to be frustrating would oversimplify matters, I suspect, but modernizing classic songs through a merger with cutting edge experimental techniques unnecessarily divorces them from the simplicity and directness that made those songs compelling in the first place.

Trouble at Jinx Hotel ultimately doesn’t work, and that’s something of a surprise given the ensemble that Chernoff has assembled: Thalia Zadek (Come), Efrim Menuck (Godspeed You! Black Emperor), Sam Shalabi (The Shalabi Effect), Chris Brokaw (Codeine, Come, The New Year, and others), and David Michael Curry (Willard Grant Conspiracy) are just a few of the names. Drawn out orchestral beauty does not suggest the immediacy of protest music, and too much of it blunts the message. The album becomes, to borrow a favorite simile from Pauline Kael, like an empty Christmas tree: we can hang all of our dumb metaphors on it. Which makes for an odd protest.

By Tom Zimpleman

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