Jess Pillmore recorded "Slightly Skewed" four years ago in another time and, apparently, on another planet, for as good as it was--- and it was really, really good--- the CD she just finished is that much better. "Reveal" is a giant step forward for Jess and cohort-in-arms Dan Phelps. While "Skewed" was exceptional in its own right, "Reveal" is the step off the edge that places them both near the top of the musical ladder. Major artists with a capital 'M'.
"Skewed" was music on the outskirts of the women's rock movement when it was recorded. There was a feel about it that danced around Tori Amos and Ani Defranco and many of the fringe folk rock artists of that time. Not that Pillmore's music was derivative. As a songwriter she excels, and never more than on that project. Soulful songs, beautiful songs they are, but it is no longer 2001 and I for one am thankful that Pillmore recognizes it. I consider "Reveal" her welcome to the 21st Century.
And what a welcome it is. The first thirty seconds dispel any rumor that as a musician she is in any way ordinary. "I use the shower as a confessional", she begins, "as the steam rises I unleash it all". Floating piano and solid backup support the verse, but by the chorus everything twists into a pretzel of odd chord progressions bordering on dissonance. Strangely, it somehow works, and works beautifully by the tenth listen when the ear fully attunes itself to what is happening. (You don't expect it to be easy, do you? You have to work to hear music this good.)
"Learn To Let Go" follows the same path, somewhat, with a fine lead-in and a twist at the chorus which will have feminists raising fists in agreement, and even I find myself smiling at the light-hearted truth hidden beneath the words. Then, a short run into an ambient vocal break and we're back at the beginning and ready for a mole-hill crescendo that seems almost commercial enough for radio.
Pillmore has her light jazz side as well, delving into variances of the genre dominated by such personages as Norah Jones, Phoebe Snow and the like. Either I'm sure would have loved to have come up with "Vast Horizon" or "Point of Reference" or "Siberia" and they would do the songs justice, but here Pillmore dispenses the justice and dispenses it magnificently.
While "Atlanta" is not for me the highlight of this CD, it is a definite high point. Call it word jazz or beatnik rap, it is talking blues just short of Bongwater territory and when she goes into her repeated "I'm sorrys", I'm sold. A very hard track to pull off, but she does it and the CD is definitely better for it.
What If's grind rock and roll paranoia into your psyche in "When Your World Changed", setting up lines like "What if we had closed that window/What if we had put on a hundred locks", carrying you over the threshold to the point where you want to get up and make sure the doors are locked, all the time wondering what exactly happened for such questions to be asked.
"Open My Mouth" almost stops me from breathing every time I hear it. The combination of the arrangement and Pillmore's use of phrasing not to mention a manic floating vocal background on the break make it the second most accessible track on the CD. I mean, there are almost hooks there, and the melody and despair wears you down. Way down. But that is nothing compared to the ethereal beauty and haunting theme of the CD's closer, "Don't Show Me", in which Pillmore watches in total desolation as someone she loves deeply walks off without a word. "Don't show me the world", she breathes, "Don't show me the world is harsh and bitter. Where only fools can be happy because they don't know better". It may not seem like much here, but when you hear it with the music, whew!
"Pound For Pound" works amazingly well, thanks to its placement after the haunting "Open My Mouth", taking the music from floating melody to cacophony. No segue here, but once again, Jess and Dan know what they're doing. Harsh and brash after crushing emotions. It's perfect.
There are a thousand technical oddities I could point out--- the depth of the background, often floating to the surface from the broad expanse of a musical ocean; the ability of this excellent cast of musicians to change on a dime from light jazz to floating space opera to a harsher industrial electronic sound; the numerous and odd percussive effects buried beneath layers of sound; the layout of the tracks themselves. I shake my head in amazement.
An album like this does not just appear. Dan Phelps played a huge part in putting Pillmore's vision together. He organized the musicians, played umpteen instruments and parts himself, sweated and twisted knobs and probably demanded more from her than she knew she had. Indeed, without him, this CD would be quite different. Without Pillmore, though, there would be none at all and that would be a tragedy.
Really, the question here is not whether Pillmore has what it takes to be a star, but how long it takes us to realize that she already is. In the meantime, I'm sure some people will be asking me, just who is this Jess Pillmore and is she that good. And all I will be able to do is smile and say, Jess Pillmore is a monster and, yeah, she's that good. Maybe even better.