Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
It’s easy to understand why Jack White is all over Olivia Jean, producing her first album, releasing her music on his Third Man label, and inviting her as support on his Raconteurs tour.
Like White, Jean was born and raised in Detroit and made the move to Nashville. She’s also a multi-instrumentalist who is obsessive about her work. And perhaps most importantly, Jean’s musical sensibilities of punk, rock, pop, garage, surf, Brit Invasion and psychedelia align with White’s own influences. With her dark hair and pasty white complexion, she even looks a little like him.
Jean’s sophomore release comes five years after her 2014 White-produced debut on which she played nearly every instrument. She not only self-produced this one, but works with a full backing band. That results in a more personal reflection of her idiosyncratic style. Call it “punk rocking surf” or “bubblegum garage” — the latter from the disc’s press release — if you need to label the heavily reverbed guitar, thumping drums and girl group vocals that blend together on propulsive tracks like “Shut Your Mouth,” “Siren Call” and “Rhinestone.” Part Go-Go’s, part older Blondie, and splashed with a whiff of Phil Spector (“If You Don’t Love Me by Now” even kicks off with the iconic Spector “Be My Baby” drumbeat), Jean’s sound may be reminiscent of others but her approach is distinctive.
Jean shifts into acoustic T Rex territory on a cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Brushfire” and borrows some Byrds-styled ringing 12 string licks to power the punky “Can You Help Me.” She’s also concise, squeezing her songs down to the basics (only four of the 14 tracks break the three-minute barrier). Looking for ballads? You’ve come to the wrong place because even when “The Hunt” kicks off with tinkling piano, it quickly breaks into a growling, pulsing rocker closer to The Runaways than The Bangles.
The roaring “Night Owl” — a tune that describes Jean’s late night preference — lashes out with a tough guitar lick any punk band would envy. Better still, every track has hooks and melodies that explode out of the stereo. Make sure you crank this up on some hunky floor-standing speakers, ‘cause that’s the way it should be heard. It’s a relentless retro ride that’s over and done in under 40 minutes. Only Jean’s somewhat thin vocals prevent this from being a modern day twang classic. But you won’t notice that small debit because the music is so involving, energetic, crackling and at times even frantic.
No need crafting a playlist for your next Saturday shindig. Just push play on Night Owl and let Olivia Jean do the work.