Sunday, February 16, 2014

Traversing the Night with Jukebox the Ghost

From left to right: Tommy Siegel, Ben Thornewill, Jesse Kristin

Though I generally take music suggestions with a grain of salt, I enjoy proving myself right. So couple weeks ago when a music service, Spotify, suggested that I start listening to Jukebox the Ghost based on my deep and undying love for my hometown heroes, Walk the Moon, I was skeptical, and I fully intended to dislike the band. Jukebox the Ghost is a three piece band consisting of Tommy Siegel on guitar, Jesse Kristin on drums, and Ben Thornewill on piano, with both Tommy and Ben trading off as lead singer. Originating in Washington, DC in 2006 the band has been touring almost constantly since then and is currently in LA recording their fourth album. Despite my misgivings, the unlikely combination of an upbeat piano driven pop sound paired with serious lyrics about the nature of life, death, heartbreak, and loneliness was too good to ignore. The night I discovered Jukebox the Ghost I stayed up way past 3 am. I listened to their entire discography twice.

To be fair, the lateness of the hour wasn’t merely due to their catchy tunes, although the catchiness really cannot be overstated. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, and when I do manage to fall asleep, I sometimes awake before my alarm.  Always, but especially at night, when the stillness around me is in irritating contrast with my mind, I feel like there is a live wire humming where my veins should be. I stay up late every night and when the rest of the world goes to sleep my brain just seems to be getting started. I completely identify with the all too relevant lyrics to their song “Everybody Knows:” “yeah it is midnight, but my day only just arrived.” These guys have plenty of songs that feel as restless and human as I am.
Their music, the later stuff in particular, is deeply human. No subject seems too painful to broach, be it the death of Ben’s grandfather of lung cancer, or the struggles inherent to being distant from loved ones. A lot of us, and I can be as guilty as anyone, are caught up in the idea that if you ever feel anything that makes people uncomfortable you must cast that feeling aside, or risk being discarded yourself. Unlike other less versatile bands, Jukebox just won’t play that game. They open themselves to the wide range of human emotion and then they share it with the world.  We have that in common. I’m a little contrary by nature, so I’m known to share my “feels” without wasting a thought on societal appropriateness. No one wants to look hurt or fear in the eye, but the men behind Jukebox the Ghost have established a paradox that I frankly find hilarious. To a lazy listener, the songs are “relentlessly upbeat” or “endlessly positive,” when they really encompass a depth of feeling that is so much more. The message and music working in tandem undermine societal conventions on what is and isn’t okay to share, and it’s awesome.
This contrast evokes a musical style that perfectly reflects my mind space. I am often described as enthusiastic, a word I’ve come to regard with mild distaste, and yet I recognize the zeal with which I try to live my life in their music, especially the songs “Under My Skin,” “Good Day,” and “Victoria.” I don’t know any other band that can manage in one moment to tap into the enthusiasm most people know me for as well as the worry that keeps me up at night. As far as I can tell, Jukebox the Ghost is unique.
As much as I love Jukebox the Ghost’s first two albums, Live and Let Ghosts (2008) and Everything Under the Sun (2010) most wonderful to me is the beautifully and wistfully titled Safe Travels (2012). In it the pop sound is still present but it mingles with more obviously introspective tunes. The band has become more upfront with their themes like mortality and loss. Case in point: “The Spiritual,” the last track on Safe Travels and a surprising first foray into gospel music, is the only song to ever make me tear up, despite the fact that crying, for me, is generally reserved for the end of a good book, a movie where the pet dies, or a particularly frustrating argument. “The Spiritual” expresses a willingness to be humbled that is entirely absent from mainstream music, and Ben’s singing reminds me that I’m “human like the rest of us, weak.” In fact, I am compelled to draw a parallel to my absolute favorite line from “Nobody,” the last track on their second album: “I’ve never known why it’s a crime to say you’re not fine but I’ve never been quite alright.” They’re both reminders of my personal mantra, oft-quoted by my friends: all feelings are okay. To hear the driving philosophy of my life earnestly echoed in a stranger’s words has been incredibly validating and heartening.
Although the darkness inherent to their work appeals strongly to me, I am still bent towards being a naturally happy person. I’m lucky, and so I’m also super into their music’s strong sense of playfulness, which of particular note is Jesse Kristin’s exuberant drumming. Many of their songs have hilariously funny moments, for instance in “The Popular Thing” they urge listeners to pick out a plot at a graveyard, after all, “everybody’s doing it.” Most obviously and most importantly, their songs are fun. Who else is writing dance songs about the apocalypse? Who else makes a habit of sincerely covering campy classics like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” or Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever?” No wonder their fanbase is strong and growing steadily.
It’s not like now that I know and love Jukebox the Ghost my sleeping problems are over.  For now at least I can still sometimes be found in the common rooms late at night watching reality TV reruns and studying for Chinese quizzes. So yes, their songs are infectious, but in my case at least I am grateful to have been infected with something close to a cure. Most nights I can at least lie still and rest for awhile. I may be up all night, but I’m up in good company.

Maya’s nighttime Jukebox the Ghost playlist:
Empire, Everything Under the Sun
Victoria, Live and Let Ghosts
Ghosts in Empty Houses, Safe Travels
So Let Us Create, Everything Under the Sun
The Spiritual, Safe Travels
Man In the Moon, Safe Travels

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