Many Levels of Laughter
Joyful Noise Records, 2015
J -the “J” is for Justin-Fernandez – is a modern man of melody, method and a little mystery thrown in there for alliterative purposes, as well as a talented cat too. Born to Filipino immigrants, this Chicago-based self-made cartographer (he loves sitting in his room, obsessively making maps of all things). In his spare time, he takes care to lay out some great touches to this music that he’s been making. Since last year’s EP, Memorize Now, which, I guess, could technically be called his “debut”, Fernandez has been constructing a wall of psychedelia that takes aim at corporate crap pop music and devastatingly creates some new, amazing things in the process.
Well J has finally released, this month (July, 2015), his first full-length CD, Many Levels of Laughter and for all the curious listeners out there who’d like a sample before buying or at least some kind of glimpse to get their senses either piqued or not, Soundcloud is featuring, all over it’s site, one of the tunes off his new CD, entitled “Read My Mind”. Some might call it “bedroom pop”, due to the similarity of other cool stuff which has been recorded in impromptu studios in one’s bedroom (i.e., Owen) and then has one of two possible outcomes: either it is recorded on some really high-end equipment, stuff that doesn’t have to be crammed into a whole studio, much less a bedroom, to make it sound impressive or else, the “lo-fi”, on-the-fly, sometimes purposefully made to sound as DIY as possible. Well, with Many Levels… I am hearing more of the former, that is, a well-made, studio-quality product that has great engineering, i.e., I can hear, on one channel, the chiming guitar riffing, while on the other side, I hear the atmospheric vocals J is putting out.
To be honest here, I’m not starting my listening (nor did I in the 1st place) with “Read My Mind”; I started at the beginning and went all the way through, so, like, the first tune I heard was the opener, “Between the Channels”, which really is aptly named, with the aforementioned separation going on. But, that kind of ethereal separation continues on the minute & ½ “Markers”. But then, when we get to the third track, the one that Soundcloud, et al is promoting as a “single”(??), “Read My Mind”, does have a more equal-ed-out “togetherness” in its sonic structure. Listening to it, I can see why it was chosen to represent the album: it’s a great tune! The circus-y keyboard really adds a certain je ne sais quois to “Read My Mind”. Not only is it a nice addition to the mix, but it also, at times does, either, a bit of pitch-shifting or just goes slightly off-key, but, in such a way as to prick up your ears, and simultaneously create some dissonance that gives it a kind of imperfect-perfection. I think that many listeners who, if they only hear “Read My Mind” and nothing else, will get one picture of J Fernandez, not an incorrect one, but it’s not the whole picture. On the next tune, “Casual Encounter”, that same groovy, organ-synth keyboard is there again and this time it serves as a great, almost necessary backdrop that gives it a feel which would be something altogether different without it. Also, listening to it, I am, more and more, reminded of someone – but who it may be is getting hard to think of. Certainly the use of the keyboards does add a little Stereolab vibe to it, but it’s not that which I was originally thinking of. Oh well, it doesn’t really matter, because the album is not at all about being derivative -not on purpose, that’s for sure and it doesn’t come out that way, by accident either. I can’t help but go through and deconstruct each tune that I hear, as in, the next one, “Filled With Joy”, which is a short – only 1:19 – instrumental, almost a kind of “bridge” to the next tune. It’s very jazz-driven, has a sax meandering there in the background as well as a hip, urban soundscape that really gets under your skin. In fact, I was digging it so much that I was almost disappointed when, all of a sudden, it has an abrupt ending that then goes right into “Holy Hesitation”. Damn – there is really something that is on the tip of my tongue but which I can’t name, except that, speaking of Stereolab, “Holy Hesitation” really has something that reminds me of some of Stereolab’s exotic melodies, done on a variety of old, analog synthesizers (that is, Stereolab did that-I can’t say, for sure, how J does it).
“Souvenirs” is another groovy tune with a jazzy bent and an atmospheric, laid-back vibe. When we come to the penultimate, “Apophis”, we get ethereal with a touch of dissonance. Fernandez, in the mellow vein in which he sings, puts his voice through a processor of some kind that brings out that spacey, calling-you-from-your-dreams aspect, that makes it all that more scintillating, but that amorphous, reverberated voice sound runs throughout the album. Anyway, “Apophis” starts off with this organ-sounding intro which takes us into J’s opening vocal that portends a hypnotic tune which is destined to be, after a few listens, like so many of the songs on Many Levels of Laughter, unforgettable, embedded in your senses. The organ-keyboard-synth keeps on chiming through this very m-e-l-l-o-w tune, a tambourine shaking out a rhythm here and then…it stops and in comes the finale, “Melting Down”, a song that starts with another keyboard structure, which at first, is on a fast repeat of the note it’s on, then morphs into a smoothed out sound, back to the varied speeds of repeating notes, which then evolve, almost unnoticeable, into a really cool melody that gets embedded in your head – really intense on headphones! There’s a basic drum kit beat going on, with a light back-beat and a high-hat snapping. But it’s that ultra moody keyboard combined with J’s perfectly coiffed vocals that make it such an endearing song. By the time we get to the 2/3 mark or maybe it’s the ¾ mark, it speeds up a little bit and the beat gets a little stronger, a really mind-altering melody emanating from the keyboards, or should I say one melody here and some ultra-cool effects from a different one. The thing is just so brilliant, so heady and just a perfectly produced originality.
By the way, I finally did figure out what the name of that band was that Many Levels…reminded me of: it was actually a combination of two bands that both appeared on Joan of Arc Presents: Don’t Mind Control, a collection of 18 bands that all had at least one member who had been a part of Joan of Arc at one time or another: The Zoo Wheel and The Cairo Gang. If you’ve heard them, or have listened to the aforementioned album, you’ll, I hope, know what I’m talking about. That’s not to say I thought that J Fernandez was, in any way, derivative in his brilliant originality. He is a truly unique new voice and also an exciting one. Especially in this day and age, when there’s people, complaining about the dearth of great, exciting albums that one can listen to from beginning to end, and the many one-hit-not-so-wonderful pop stuff, and the here-today-gone-tomorrow, commercialization and commodification of pop music. With albums such as Many Levels of Laughter as well as some other indie albums that have, happily, stayed low-key, out of the corporate spotlight, leaving them to their own devices, which has made for some great albums that are well worth listening to from start to finish. Glad to have this one around! -KM.