Jim and the French Vanilla is the solo moniker for Jim Blaha, guitarist in The Blind Shake, a band with have several of their own releases, as well as collaborations with notables like Michael Yonkers and John Reis. This is his third “French Vanilla” release, but the first with true distribution and also the first to feature a full band.
There are certainly Blind Shake spots throughout, but this record is more personal and emotional. Instead of focusing on the rhythmic punch of The Blind Shake, Afraid of the House uses similar musicianship to create an album that’s longing and lonely, sitting in discomfort without an easy way out. That sounds like despair, but it’s not that kind of record. Instead it’s up and down, a rollercoaster of emotions that can never get beyond the peak.
While there are shades of The Blind Shake in songs like “Take It To the Grave” and “Psychic Killer,” Jim and the French Vanilla uses that backbone and Blaha’s familiar guitar style that merges surf and garage, while adding more verbal cues and emotional resonance to push the tone in a new direction. Instead of using backing vocalists, depth is provided through reverb and effects that give a haunted and detached element while the rhythm of the songs still push forward, yearning not wallowing. “I’m Just Sitting Here,” the second song on the album, is one of many examples. It’s pop-structured, but with creative tones and vocals that achieve turn the format on its side.
There are shades of lo-fi and other ethereal sounds throughout the record, balancing atmospheric instrumental with that more traditional structure. It all comes to boil in “Lonely Man,” which epitomizes the tone. It has some of the record’s most powerful hooks and most catchy moments, but with reverb ringing an extra layer of depth, it never feels upbeat in the traditional sense, despite structures that usually have that affect. It’s powerful music that dives into new explorations.
Where most rock solo records lay it all out there for the listener, Jim and the French Vanilla instead choose to create a subtly tonal, yet accessible, sound that fits his back catalog but still manages to be its own beast.
8.0 / 10
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