Jackie-O Motherfucker Freedomland

[Very Friendly; 2008]

Rating: 2/5

Styles: free-folk, experimental
Others: Vibracathedral Orchestra, Double Leopards, Sunroof!

Portland-based experimental collective Jackie-O Motherfucker is responsible for a couple of important moments in my last decade of music listenerhood. Reviews of their 1999 record Fig. 5 inspired me to try something I’d normally not’ve had the patience for, and the enthusiasm I developed for that warm, mystical record of reimagined American folk songs bled onto the following year’s Liberation, another great piece of experimental free folk-jazz. But despite the rewards of careful listening to both records, 2005’s Flags of the Sacred Harp was my clear favorite: significantly more accessible and melodic than the band’s prior work, but still richly conceived and brilliantly produced -- it’s the one JOMF record most deserving of more recognition than the group’s been given to date.

Naturally, I was eager for a chance to review a new JOMF record, having missed last year’s Valley of Fire. The new album, Freedomland, turns out to be a collection of live recordings from 2006, following the release of Flags. But once again the Motherfuckers have thrown a curveball. Rather than reimagining Flags’s languid beauties, Freedomland instead offers a five-song platter of original, improvised numbers not found on any of their studio works.

When a band has enough members to be called a “collective,” it’s crucial that the bandleaders are astute enough to prevent the music from turning into an cluttered mess. On their early records, JOMF occasionally teetered on this precipice, but Flags of the Sacred Harp seemed a decisive step back towards simplicity. Unfortunately for the pieces on Freedomland, the nature of the recordings adds another wild card: fidelity. Without the luxury of studio recording technology, songs like “Ghost Ride” and “Lord of the Underpass,” whose waves of static and echoing vocals might have proved magically haunting, are here reduced to a fuzzy shadow of their potential. Centerpiece “Pull My Daisy” is dynamic enough to stick its head above water, but I can’t help but imagine what the song “really” sounds like without the filter of limited live recording techniques.

Freedomland is frustrating because it documents possibly compelling works by a band whose performances captured here were probably compelling, too. It just doesn’t reach the standards of prior work, so I'll just keep waiting for their next studio album.

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