For a certain segment of music fandom, Jake Ewald will probably always be one half of the songwriting duo behind Modern Baseball. It’s a testament to their outsized influence on the Philly scene but also to their brand of heart-on-the-sleeve indie-rock, a genre that tends to grab hold during a time of starry-eyed adolescence and never let go. But Ewald has more than established himself as a solo act, and his three records as Slaughter Beach, Dog land somewhere between good and great, retaining much of his emo-leaning catharsis but now with a folk-rock template. At The Moonbase, however, is something else entirely, a tantalizing collision of form and style, a wonderful example of an artist finding a sweet spot both lyrically and musically, and all dropped with no PR on Christmas Eve to throw a wrench into my top ten list. Touché, Jake.
Ewald has always been a gifted and nuanced
storyteller, but never has he sounded so confident, evidenced in the
parenthesized thematic bookends of “Do You Understand (What Has Happened To
You)” and “Notes From a Brief Engagement (at the Boot & Saddle)”, which
feature a meandering, stream-of-consciousness delivery not easy to pull off.
The former is a charming shot of pure nostalgia — you can practically feel the
sticky floors of Philly rowhomes as Ewald eulogizes black mold, haggard bike
frames and nights spent bullshitting, all over a simple, almost hypnotizing
melodic template. “Notes From A Brief Engagement”, however, is rooted somewhere
closer to the present and serves as a wonderful tribute to the recently
shuttered titular venue. This, again, is all inner monologue – pre-show
jitters, the weird sounds made by the instrument cable, the yellow-eyed men
outside the bathroom – but where “Do You Understand” is breezy and relaxed, this
has the frantic energy and loosened hinges of a boozy night out. Remember
Similar to the loud and soft dynamic his old
band used to much effect, some of the best moments of At The Moonbase find the sweet spot between spare and lush. Ewald
has dabbled in this before, but where 2019’s Safe and Also No Fear moved back and forth from folk to chunkier
indie rock, this record plays its soft, finger-picked moments against sensuous
full-band arrangenents. Which is where we must, of course, discuss Wil Schade
and that saxophone. This is the final ingredient no one could have guessed
Slaughter Beach, Dog was missing. “A Modern Lay” is a very good song, then the
sax breakdown hits and it’s suddenly one of the year’s best.
Moonbase is, simply put, Ewald’s best work yet, and
considerably narrows the gap between himself and the verbose, idiosyncratic
storytellers – Craig Finn, John Darnielle, John K. Samson – he clearly
emulates. Ewald is a fascinating artist we’ve gotten a chance to watch grow in
real time, and this latest is a giant leap forward.
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