California Years Dig
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Over five albums and a decade of recording, Jill Sobule has mused on topics
such as the death penalty, anorexia, shoplifting, reproduction, the French
resistance movement, adolescence and the Christian right. Early hit songs
included I Kissed a Girl and Supermodel.
Jill inducted Neil Diamond into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. She's
performed with Neil Young, Billy Bragg and Warren Zevon and has been a
political troubadour for NPR stations across America. She's an American
California Years, the first release on her own Pinko Records, was produced
by Don Was . The recording, promotion and publicity for the record was
funded entirely by donations from her loyal fans. $86K and counting!
"Jill Sobule can claim her place among the stellar New York
singer-songwriters of the last decade. Topical, funny and more than a little
poignant ...grown-up music for an adolescent age."
- Jon Pareles, New York Times
"Vocally gifted and lyrically witty ... a peerless satirist."
- People Magazine
"A feisty post-punk feminist whose work brings to mind a cross between Liz Phair and Gertrude Stein."
- The New Yorker
"Songwriting skills that transcend her one-novelty-hit wonder status."
- Village Voice
"A deft ironist. She is smart and original, a treasure undervalued by
inevitable association with countless lessers who also happen to be singing
about going to the laundromat in Brooklyn."
- The New Republic
Top customer reviews
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Although the financing was different, there is not a huge difference between California Years and her previous two studio albums. Her output is very consistent in quality. Jill's songs are witty, melodic, personal, sarcastic, sometimes comic, sometimes deeply touching. If you are new to Jill Sobule, you can find samples of her work on Myspace and on her personal website, jillsobule.com. You could think of it as modern folk-pop music, with a woman's emotional and aesthetic sensitivity.
The bucks donated by her fans were to enable her to use professional studios and hire a major producer, which she did -- Don Was. As far as I can tell, Don Was' touch is a little different, but he did not use a heavy hand. Texture and effects are added here and there, but Jill's voice and guitar generally remain the focal point. San Francisco and a few other songs are given major production with layers of vocals and instrumentation, but that is balanced with quiet, spare instrumentation on quieter songs.
To be honest, having heard many of the demos Jill has posted on her website over the years, I think Jill is perfectly capable of doing production herself. It would save money and the result would not be significantly different. It might even be superior.
Although this was supposed to have been a high class studio project, some of the vocals seem inexpertly recorded. On too many songs Jill is too close to the mike and sounds like she's singing with her head in a small box. It's too breathy and claustrophobic. (The same thing happened with Sting's vocals on his album of John Dowland songs.) If you look at a typical recording studio arrangement, a vocalist will be 6-12 inches from the microphone with a bit more space around her. I don't know who is to blame but it is a minor flaw in the production.
Jill Sobule remains a relative obscurity, and it is hard to understand why. Her songwriting is far more consistent than a number of big stars I could name. She's written a number of good songs that haven't appeared on her albums. Her personality and humor comes through in her music. Though I don't share her political views, which she sometimes expresses in song and in her journal, I find her personally sympathetic and her music very clever and likable. I recommend you give her music a try.
There is a collection of old or unreleased songs along with new songs. If you haven't listened to her before, you have been missing so much. She often writes of political activism, sexism, and and many other isms, and she ends up being the person you would want to invite over for coffee. Love this album, unrequited love, a man who plays spiderman, and pining after a waitress. Makes for a wonderful journey while listening to this album.
So I am already predisposed to loving this CD, and Jill Sobule once again did not let me down. Fan-funded and self-released, "California Years' is primarily inspired by Jill's move out west and all the golden glow (and mirages) Southern Cal has to offer. There's the on/off fascination that opens the album on a visit to Palm Springs, where a hike into the beautiful desert hills is so hot that you turn back, or vibrancy of the pictures you've seen gives way to a resort filled with seniors.
There's also the musical contradiction. Is Palm Springs, California the sunny fun-filled world of Brian Wilson or the tragic wanderlust of Graham Parsons? Jill's previous CD, Underdog Victorious, played with the contradictions by hiding some sad subjects under glossy pop, but here the sadness gets the low cry of pedal steel. It's some pretty awesome stuff. Same for "San Francisco."
Not that Jill has lost her sense of humor. Both the biting "Nothing To Prove" and "Spiderman" take broad pokes at the entertainment business. "Mexican Pharmacy" is a bit more of a realistic take on why Tijuana has such a great rep for inexpensive drugstores. And there's the shaggy-dog story of "Where is Bobbie Gentry," which takes a long over-due look at what happened on the Tallahatchie Bridge some 40 years later.
"California Years" is proof to me that, once again, Jill Sobule's best music making years are still in progress. Her "I Kissed A Girl" fling in the spotlight may be two decades past, but CD's like "California Years" give fans like us reason to keep coming back.