If you were fooled by Can't Maintain, the latest from Andrew Jackson Jihad, then you haven't been paying attention to history. Presumably, most acoustic acts grow weary of the limitations their medium subjects them to; there is only so much one can do with an acoustic guitar (and I suppose a stand-up bass, in this instance). So, like many before them -- most notably, for this conversation, Bob Dylan and Against Me! -- Andrew Jackson Jihad have embraced the other side of the musical spectrum and included electrical elements on their latest offering.
Upon the initial listen, many will become instantly conscious of the noticeable changes. The second "Heartilation" opens up with is dead strumming, and drums entering the musical arena. The characteristically short song gives way to another percussion-assisted, self-deprecating track, "Self Esteem." These first two songs serve to demonstrate an evolving duo in an audience-friendly, albeit even if it doesn't seem so, given what is to come next.
AJJ exploit this moment to expand upon their growing sound, using the opening electric and percussion tracks to prepare listeners for strings, horns, a kazoo (in which a whole ballad is devoted to, and pulled off quite well) and electrical, seemingly looped, effects. Banjos, bells and vocal reverb is also used to further develop and layer the once minimalist, simplistic style that litters the band's back catalogue.
However, past these cosmetic changes, not much has changed. Most of the songs feature the fast, upbeat tempo with AJJ's typical lyric flow. Frontman Sean Bonnette is still as meta-critical as ever, singing about his absent father, a pretentious music scene and how to live as a self-loathing bastard -- a lot of self-loathing. A lot. In fact, this may be one of the band's most depressing records to date, if you can imagine that (there's no disguising it. It's hard not to sulk with Bonnette as he sings "we could live there together / or I'll live alone less happy / But I'll live / unfortunately").
This isn't to suggest it's old or trite; in fact, quite the opposite. One of the resounding compliments of this album is its ability to expand the band's musical palate. Anyone can add a few instruments and pass it off as "progress." However, Bonnette and Ben Gallaty have attempted to stretch the bounds of their simple folk posturing. Can't Maintain -- which undoubtedly is referring to the emotional and mental stability of Bonnette, if not also commenting on a much grander idea -- can be interpreted as a reference to a band that can't stay stagnated or in routine. From the rock-influenced "You Don't Deserve Yourself," with its swinging rock horns and electric guitar solo, to the looping and ostensibly avant-guard pandering in "Kazoo Sonata in C Major" and "We Didn't Come Here to Rock," Andrew Jackson Jihad is showing they are more than a one trick pony.
The most successful aspect to Can't Maintain is how the whole experience sounds natural; that is, perhaps at first it stands out like a sore thumb, but after two or three listens, one doesn't even notice that this is a vastly different band than Candy Cigarettes and Cap Guns. By keeping the new instrumentation dispersed and not overwhelming, coupling it with more traditional AJJ songs ("Sense, Sensibility"), one doesn't even flinch at the vocal reverb on "Truckers Are the Blood" or the lush and growing horns on "Evil." It seems familiar -- the best outcome for a growing band looking not to alienate their still fragile fan base.
While still testing what is tried and true, Can't Maintain bridges out, if only marginally, to stay fresh and interesting. And for that, it maintains (no pun intended) relevant -- thus worth the attention.
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