HERE COMES THE BLOOD MAN
Few people like their surprises ruined. But "Bakersfield," the secret track on JVA's new CD, "Here Comes the Blood Man," is too cool not to reveal.
Before the revelation, a little exposition. JVA, formerly Jeroan van Aichen, is the showcase for Jim Walker, a Portland musical fixture since the mid-1990s. And "Here Comes the Blood Man" is, at times, every bit as serious and haunting as the title might imply. The nimble opening track, "Beating," offers a telling lyric: "Every heart is paper beating behind brittle bone." Eight songs later, the eerie "Sleepwalking" offers this key line: "I'm sleepwalking through the hole she left in me."
Along the way, Walker pens a painful kiss-off to "Rachel"; looks back in ghostly torch-song reverie on "Sleeping In Your Arms"; and wonders who's better off on "Laughing Now": "You can't break my heart, 'cause it's dead from the battle."
Drawn in by Walker's accomplished and catchy folk-pop songs, listeners might feel a little voyeuristic in this wistful world of loss and heartache, like we're watching a relationship come apart right in front of us. It's the music, as intense and intimate as the lyrics, that keeps us engaged. Walker's support team for "Blood Man" includes ace Portland musicians such as bassists Jeff Leonard and Willie Barber, drummer Gregg Williams and vocalist Nancy Hess. Walker handles lead vocals, guitar and keyboards.
"Laughing Now," fueled by Rob O'Hearn's powerful Hammond B3 organ and Walker's plaintive lead guitar, is pure shuffle-down elegance, a soulful ballad with no apparent winners, only broken hearts. Many ofthe CD's 11 songs reflect on the past with mixed emotions. Immediately following "Laughing Now," "North Beach Tuesday" is a welcome, upbeat exception that firmly looks at the here and now. It's a pop confection complete with timeless, if heavy-handed, hooks and harmonies.
But there's no greater (or odder) relief to the CD's haunting portraits than "Bakersfield," a tacked-on, tongue-in-cheek, mostly spoken-word melodrama. The song's narrator manages to exorcise bitter childhood memories through his use of wry Tom Waits-like storytelling. Hilariously deadpan remembrances of a disastrous family vacation ("I remember Bakersfield: nighttime hot as the day, like gorilla breath") reinforce the perspective that time really does heal all wounds psychic and emotional.
That reminder gives "Here Comes the Blood Man" a strangely optimistic closing moment, and a surprise worth spoiling.
Here Comes The Blood Man - JVA
JVA is the current nom de band of one Jim Walker, who, for most of the past ten years, has masqueraded in these environs as Jeroan Van Aichen. Walker is no Jimmy-come-lately to the music business. He was deeply entrenched in all aspects of performing long before he ever showed up in Portland. He was highly involved in community theater in his hometown of Los Angeles, even before he formed the band Lost Anthony, which regularly played in clubs throughout Southern California.
Later, Walker contributed songs and scores to several films as well as lending his voice to countless radio and television jingles- eventually doing voice-over work for the “Aladdin On Ice” touring show and the Teenage Muûtant Turtles’ “Six Flags Tour.” For a short time, while still in California, Walker (as Jeroan Van Aichen) signed recording contracts with RCA and Geffen: deals which both quickly evaporated.
Tiring of the LA music business grind, Walker re-located to Portland in the early ‘90s, seeking a fresh start in the burgeoning Northwest scene. To make ends meet, he began doing voice-over work for local commercials. It was in that capacity, while portraying a character in a children’s video series, that Walker met Craig Carothers (who also had a role in the video). In 1995, Walker became the keyboard player in Carothers’ band. They worked together on numerous projects afIter that.
This particular album, JVA’s sixth, was recorded over a period of six years, by Walker and engineer Craig Brock (here referred to as “CB Rock”), who recently moved his Poundhouse Studio operation to Mexico, although it is rumored that, due to unforeseen circumstances, he may soon be returning to the United States. It is mostly a true solo album, with Walker playing all the instruments on many of the ten (eleven, counting the “secret track”) songs However, drummer Gregg Williams makes a couple of appearances, as does bassist Willy Barber. A few other musicians also fill various backup roles, as well, through the course of the project.
For the above reasons, this is a fairly laidback affair, with Walker’s boyish vocal delivery given center stage on all songs. There’s often a raspy, edge to the Paul Simon-like ingenuousníess of his voice, as if Walker picked up a little of Craig Carothers’ vocal grit to add to his own presentations. At other times he sounds like the sensitive songwriter type, ala Elliott Smith, Mark Everett, better known as E of the Eels, or the Swedish sensation Sondre Lerche Only on the hilarious secret track, “Bakersfield,” does he depart from that sort of personae, to become someone other. Musically, Walker covers a wide range of styles, venturing from straight-ahead folk-rock arrangements to blues and reggae, even landing briefly in the Sting/Peter Gabriel sphere of arena-emo-rock. And “Bakersfield” is something altogether different.
The lead track, “Beating,” starts the album off on the right foot, with Walker’s piquant acoustic guitar backing his forlornly wispy vocals on a song that seems wistfully reminiscent, in structure and mood, of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” “He is teeth, and he ™is sinew/He is muscle. He is meat/Veins are swollen with his anger/Pounding with the blood and heat.”
Walker’s percussive, palm-muted electric guitar backing on the eerily dark “Rachel,” creates a taut, tight tension and a suffocating atmosphere- which is perfect for his subject matter: apparently about the murder of the aforementioned Rachel and the quick disposal of her lifeless body. “Green tractor at an old red barn. A dog barks from a pickup truck/The crick chubbles beneath my feet I’ve got a body tied up in a sack/Pawprints in the raccoon mud. Wet nettles on my gooseflesh skin/Dirty water to my cold, dry lips. I’ve got my Rachel in my arms again.”
At the end of the tale, a scene unfolds, as evocative as any image from the surreal ‘50s film classic “The Night of The Hunter.” “I float my sugar down the river’s joints. I watch it carry her and lay her down/The sun rises on her sinking nails. She’s going under now withou∏t a sound” Harrowingly effective stuff.
The sauntering waltz “Laughing Now,” recalls latter-day Glenn Tilbrook and Squeeze, with various keyboard textures providing most of the aural scenery; until twin guitars solo in the middle. The clunky, chunky rhythm guitar on the verse of “North Beach Tuesday” gives way to a chorus seemingly copped directly from the Monkees songbook: the logical successor to their hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” In fact, Walker’s cooing vocal could easily pass for that of Davy Jones (Mickey Dolenz sang on the original). His perfect organ tone on the solo echoes those played by the Fireballs’ on “Sugar Shack” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Sublimely rendered.
A loping shuffle, “Pelican,” a track that took several years to complete, feels like an old Neil Young song from the days of Harvest, although Walker sounds nothing like old Rusty. A nice guitar solo decorates the middle section. A moody, bluesy number, “Sleeping√ In Your Arms” traces a descending chord progression in the verses, moving to fine, Beatlesque three-part vocal harmony in the turns. Smolderingly restrained. “All Up To You” is a straight-up reggae number, propelled by a lunging organ tone and fine horn charts contributed by the Woolies (Clark and Gavin Bondy and Tom Hill). A classic nocturne of a guitar solo in the middle helps this number to simmer without boiling.
The murkily ethereal arrangement of “Sleepwalking” creates a foggy ambience The song begins by sounding like an early Peter Gabriel number, perhaps like the Gabriel who sang during his last days with Genesis, although Walker’s voice is about a half an octave higher than Gabriel’s. The chorus swings more toward a Sting-like arrangement, from his “Fields Of Gold” period. A lovely overdriven guitar solo spills like frosting all over the middle of the song. “Thin Air” is an appropriate hymn to end the album.
However, there is that “secre“t track” tacked on at the end. “Bakersfield” has no antecedent anywhere else on the album. It is certainly one of a kind. Think of Sean Mullins and Lee Hazelwood doing a mournful duet on “Some Velvet Morning.” Then add in Harry Nilsson’s recording of his original song “JOY,” and you have some small idea of the emotional gravity of this opus : a tale of one young man’s unfortunate experiences in scenic Bakersfield, California (I could tell you of some others, but I won’t), where adult cruelty and hatred rears it’s ugly head for the first time in the boy’s life.
Over a familiarly repetitive descending keyboard line, distantly related to Bach’s “Air On A G String” (hence, related to Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade Of Pale” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”), a choir of ranch hands sing the powerful chorus- “Bakersfield, hot town of heat/A hamlet like heaven above/Bakersfield, river of dust/Showering big dreams and love.” Wow! It seems likely that this is a “true story- rather terrible in an everyday occurrence sort of way- which makes the whole production even more operatic than it might seem at first.
This is an album that invites repeated auditions; offering rewards to those willing to give these thoughtfully deep songs a chance to seep into their consciousness. Jim Walker is a real songwriter, a true storyteller. His songs contain poetry that requires an attention span. His (and Brock’s) arrangements, while stripped down and sparse, still contain a powerful impact.
That there is a lot of stylistic variety could be off putting to some, but there are enough elements which remain in place (specifically, his vocals) to lend cohesion to the album, as a whole. Walker’s music is accessible, without being trite. It is intelligent without being condescending. It is complex without being obfuscatory. Obviously, Jim Walker has spent most of his adult life mastering the craft of songwriting. It plainly shows in his work.