Review: Sarah Jaffe – Suburban Nature

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. – American Songwriter, May 4, 2010

About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.