Andrew Jackson Jihad runs the folk-punk gamut—they’ve put out a split with Ghost Mice, play The Fest more or less annually, and they’re a two-piece mostly acoustic band comprised of Sean Bonnette (guitar) and Ben Gallaty (bass). Now that I’ve lumped them in with a number of other acts, it’s time for the separation.
The Phoenix band is distinct in their instrumentation, vocals, and song structures. Having a passing familiarity with the band, the vocals have always grated on me, while the honesty of the lyrics was able to somewhat override the off-key delivery. With the release of Knife Man, their fourth studio release, I figured it was time to see how the duo has developed.
Their songs still revolve around intimacy and immediacy above all else. There is a directness that makes it easy to picture a concert, standing face to face with Bonnette and Gallaty in a personal environment. The lyrics cut straight to the point, often directly at the second-person “you,” while the minimal instrumentation serves as a vehicle for their message. Unfortunately, that message doesn’t particularly move me.
The band has definitely grown, incorporating a lot more electric instruments, giving the sixteen songs on Knife Man a varied sound, from the chamber sounds in “Big Bird” to the country of “Sad Songs (intermission)” and the two-piece punk in “Distance.” In upbeat rockers like “The Gift of the Magi 2,” there’s a bit of a punk rock Mountain Goats element, which is the band at their best. The musical variety is impressive for such a small band, and it works almost all of the time (the more experimental elements can still come across as a bit goofy). What doesn’t directly appeal is the tone of the songs. The lyrics cover serious issues: white privilege, murder, homelessness, etc. What they don’t do is introduce the familiar topics in new ways. It’s generally preaching to the choir, with an emphasis on the preaching. They do try to lighten the mood, frequently, whether through an ever-present self-awareness or strangely placed casual bits, like dropping the word “dude” into a serious verse of “Zombie by the Cranberries by Andrew Jackson Jihad.” However, the directness and intimacy of the heavier songs makes it hard to crack a smile, even when appropriate.
Andrew Jackson Jihad has carved out a very distinct sound and it continues to cross stylistic borders. However, the lyrics tend to commandeer them without any melodies striking as particularly memorable, leaving listeners with a book of quotes instead of a hummable tune.
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