Sarah Jaffe: Suburban Nature

Sarah Jaffe
Suburban Nature
Kirtland Records
Rating: ★★★★☆

It unfolds in careful steps: drummer Jeff Ryan’s simple 1-2-3-4
count-off, the soft but persistent shuffle of an acoustic guitar, the
poppy electric bass, the gradual rising of a violinist and cellist
rhythmically sawing their strings. Then, Sarah Jaffe sings and
“Clementine,” the third track off “Suburban Nature, instantly takes
on a new dimension, that of a 23-year-old singer-songwriter writing
confessions about love of the broken or breaking variety.

“50 states, 50 lines, 50 cryin’ all the times, 50 boys, 50 lies, 50
‘I’m gonna change my mind’s’/ Change my mind, I change my mind/ Now, I
feel indifferent,” she sings, her voice almost warbling with emotion.
“We were young, we were young, we were young, we didn’t care/ Is it
gone? Is it gone? Is it flowing in the air?/ Change my mind, I change
my mind/ Now, I feel indifferent.”

Then, a break, and the strings, instant of plucking out the rhythm,
softly exhale and follow Jaffe’s voice.

“All that time, wasted/ I wish I was a little more delicate,” she
laments. “I wish my, I wish my/ I wish my, I wish my/ I wish my name
was Clementine.”

Suburban Nature is not Jaffe’s first record; that honor instead going to the six-song Even Born Again EP, from August 2008. But Suburban Nature, her full-length debut, announces
the Denton, Texas-based musician’s arrival as a force on the folk-pop scene in a big way,
offering up 13 gems that could make even a hardened critic start throwing around terms like “the next big thing.”

The record begins, appropriately, only with Jaffe’s acoustic guitar
and a double-tracked vocal.

“My heart pretends not to know how it ends/ Yes, hello, self-esteem/
We shall finally be free/ Before you go,” Jaffe sings, repeating the
last line as if it were an epiphany, a kind of release.

The drummer rolls in on the snare and the song suddenly expands: all
pounding percussion – if producer John Congleton mic’ed that kick
drum, he deserves royalties on this record or some sort of monument in his name
–and Robert Gomez’s crunching electric guitar.

It’s a format to which Jaffe returns frequently on the record – the
listener thinks they’re getting a tender acoustic ballad about a
rupturing relationship and the scene swings to the left or right to
include Kris Youmans’ or Becki Howard’s weeping strings or the
stomping of a full band or a pop chorus that is so incredibly catchy
you can’t imagine why someone hasn’t written it already.

There are, of course, quieter moments on the 46-minute disc, tracks
like “Stay With Me,” where Jaffe pleads with a lover to embrace her
while also acknowledging all the complications and cracked emotions a
romantic relationship can bring. Or, there’s the deceptively simple
“Wreaking Havoc,” where a skeletal descent on acoustic guitar is
accented only by Jaffe’s voice, the lush weeping of strings and,
later, quiet, inverted loops of swirling sound.

“You do it just to spite, you know it makes me cry/ I know what makes
you cry, melodramatic life,” she sings. “We’re wreaking havoc, let’s
give our problems a name/ We both like pain.”

The record, though largely driven by acoustic guitar, offers some
eclectic scenery – the dramatic, even cinematic, sweep of “Better Than
Nothing,” where Jaffe wails during choruses over a rollicking
backbeat, strings, angelic backing vocals and piano; the gloomy,
almost drone-like, plodding and phantom electric guitar of
“Pretender;” the playful romp of the closing “Perfect Plan,” where
Jaffe’s bridges feature a piano and acoustic guitar rolling over
thumping punches for the drum kit.

The record’s first single, “Vulnerable,” is straight-forward indie-pop
and that’s meant in the best possible way. The song is almost one
continuous verse — the walking, 4/4 drum line, the driving but subtle
guitar, Jaffe’s love-lorn lyrics, the occasional interjection of
shakers or what sounds like a vibraphone.

“Wake me up/ Just to call me Sleeping Beauty,” she sings, over a
whisper of herself in the background. “Oh, fine, that’s fine/ I got my
hands up, I’m feeling vulnerable.”

Jaffe’s voice is the record’s constant. It’s a tender but flexible
vehicle for the stories she portrays: it whispers, it wails, it wavers
and breaks with an emotion or the sharp pain of a biting lyric. Though
her songs may place her among indie-rock’s crowd of singer-songwriters
fond of the acoustic guitar, her voice also is somehow bigger than
that scene. Like Ellliott Smith, perhaps, her acoustic songs have a
broader appeal and you could just as easily hear Natalie Merchant or
Bjork in her singing as you could Joanna Newsom. This record is not
for obscurists.

A performer who already seems to have recognized Jaffe’s budding
songwriting and aching, though catchy, songs is Norah Jones, no small
name herself, who asked Jaffe to tour with her earlier this year. It’s
not difficult to imagine Jaffe being pulled into a wider field of view
through those live appearances, much the way acoustic troubadour Amos
Lee was thrust into the limelight when he opened for Jones a few years
ago and had his own collection of soulful songs to share.

Jaffe has said she wanted Suburban Nature to be true to her song’s
live nature but more layered than Even Born Again, an intimate
little record that had its share of beautiful moments. On the title
track of that EP, Jaffe did away with words entirely, singing in
falsetto over ascending strings, the moment bordering on the
transcendent. That EP was no minor accomplishment.

And it’s been two good years for Sarah Jaffe since that EP was quietly
released. She’s got an ambitious, eye-opening new record, the critics are
paying attention and the sky, suddenly, must seem infinite.” With a record as good
as this, she deserves everything that’s coming to her.