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March 1st, 2006 Michael Byrne | Music Stories
 

Obscenely Brilliant

Meet Jackie-O Motherfucker, Portland's most important and most irritating band.

     
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BEHIND THE MUSIC Jackie-O's current lineup of Tom Greenwood, Nick Bindeman, Eva Saelens, Danny Sasaki (top left), the band's 1999 lineup in Baltimore (top right), Jackie-O's 2002 lineup in London (bottom right).
If you've had the privilege of seeing Portland's Jackie-O Motherfucker, you may have ended up walking away from the biggest live catastrophe you'd ever witnessed. The average Jackie-O show of late might feature a record player relaying odd beats and strange silences, a guitar gradually building a melodic abstraction from some distant folk memory, and another guitar twisted sideways trapped in its own feedback, all searching for and not always finding a common thread. And so, an hour later, there stand 12 musicians onstage and a room empty, save for the few stragglers hanging on till the lonesome end, clinging to some hope for a final peace, for a motherfucking song.

And this is the band that online music bible Pitchfork Media recently credited with recording an album that was "our secret national anthem." What gives?

The collective, or rather its sole permanent member, Tom Greenwood, has been here in Portland searching for and deconstructing songs since 1993. That year, he moved from New York with a suitcase full of reel-to-reel tapes, spliced collages of everything from forgotten folk recordings to mechanical hissing. The collective used those tapes in its earliest musical experimentations, layering improvised guitar and sax above them at long-gone venues like the X-Ray Cafe. Since then, Jackie-O has released around 25 recordings on various labels. The collective has had nearly as many members who come and go as they please, playing their musical roles in what is really more of an idea than a band.

And that idea is a full embrace of musical failure in the search for something new—the knowledge that there is noise before pop, sound before song. Jackie-O's "songs" can be as thin as a single instrument struggling to find the naked melody of "Amazing Grace," or a 12-person cacophony battling the simplicity of a back-porch folk tune. For every bit of melodic sweetness that comes from a Portland fave like, say, the Decemberists, there's a scrap pile of discarded racket. But, in Jackie-O's world, that is also a pile of scrapped possibilities. The band's most graceful moments are built out of those shards of refuse and disorder.

On March 5, Jackie-O will start a tour, taking those discordant and graceful sounds up and down the West Coast and eventually finishing with a European leg. But Portland isn't a stop. In fact, Portland seems to be completely off the group's map, recently. Last December's release of Flags of the Sacred Harp went virtually unnoticed, with barely a scrap of local promotion and no release show. To this, Greenwood says, "I don't need to be recognized here in Portland. I understand that people are into certain things here.... I don't know what those things are."

So, why should we care about Jackie-O? Well, despite the group's tenuous relationship with its hometown, it has become an international musical force. Since the release of Flags, Jackie O's first studio album in three years, a world outside of Portland has been taking a hard listen to the group. As of Feb. 21, Flags ranked within the top 20 albums on Dusted Magazine's radio airplay chart—a list compiled from 42 of the nation's most cutting-edge radio stations—creeping steadily on Cat Power and Destroyer. It has been deluged in glowing reviews from the BBC, The Guardian and Pitchfork (which scored the album an 8.1 out of 10). And then there was the Jackie-O profile on CBC's Brave New Waves, one of radio's avant-garde authorities.

Flags is, without question, Jackie-O's most accessible album to date. The disc is distinctly American, seven tracks of bent gospel and folk. It is based on The Sacred Harp, a mid-19th-century songbook of rural church music and Southern folk. Music was written then as public property, a community script that wasn't based on virtuosity or artistic ego. This is Greenwood's terrain and he took hold of it, thrashing the songbook into as many pieces as he saw fit and reconstructing it into beautiful work.

It's hard to say when another Jackie-O album will surface, since Greenwood is tentatively planning on disappearing for a while after the tour. Until he re-emerges, we will be left with Flags and its hint of the collective's future, "Hey! Mr. Sky." A five-minute track of sublime folk distillation written by Greenwood alone, after a season spent in Hudson, N.Y., poring through hundreds of midcentury folk records. So, even "Hey! Mr. Sky," Jackie-O's pop song, is a fragment of cultural memory, a revision of a collective songbook yet to be named. This is why Jackie-O doesn't operate like any other band, and also why it may be the most important band in our city: It isn't a band at all, but an American archive.

Your best chance to see Jackie-O Motherfucker will be on Sunday, March 5, at Chop Suey in Seattle. 7 pm. $8. 21+.

In Their Own Words

The collective's current members on Jackie-O.

Tom Greenwood

"There's sounds that just harmonize with us as humans. I don't pretend to know what they are until we find them. Once they appear, we just harness them and gently shape them. And a lot of times we don't hold on to them for very long."

Honey Owens

Also of World, Nudge, co-owner of the local club Dunes.

"Music pours out and we are the vessels. Then, later on, we add our consciousness in the mix by arranging. Live is sometimes successful and sometimes not, depending on the room, the people, the planets!"

Adam Forkner

Also of White Rainbow, World, Yume Bitsu.

"Jackie-O can been seen as holding the flag of an era of Portland music that has since passed. When it was just a bunch of weirdos making music in their basements; that open-ended spirit of raw creative energy in its free-est form."

Jessie Carrot

Also of Freak Mountain Ramblers.

"A beautiful mess!"

Theo Angell

Also of Hall of Fame, himself.

"Jackie-O has always allowed for individual flights of screwage during shows. It's a place where war could be waged and peace attained; balancing the freakout with the heartful ballad."


Your best chance to see Jackie-O Motherfucker will be on Sunday, March 5, at Chop Suey in Seattle. 7 pm. $8. 21+.
 
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