Reviewed on this page:
Things Here Are Different - Jill Sobule - Happy Town -
Pink Pearl - Underdog Victorious - California Years
Denver-born Jill Sobule is a singer-songwriter who's particularly adept at capturing small moments; she has an acerbic sense of humor,
a knack for melody, and a laudable disregard for genre, though she's primarily a rocker.
Sobule had a fluke hit with the coy "I Kissed A Girl," but that gimmick tune isn't really representative of her work - while she can be too
clever and flip, she can also be direct, honest and thoughtful... a comparison to Janis Ian wouldn't be too far off.
Her voice is plain and a bit breathy, but it suits her voice-in-the-wilderness sensibility, and though she usually soft-pedals her
instrumental skills, she's an audacious lead guitar player.
The fan site appears to be down, but Sobule's official site is chatty and fun.
Things Here Are Different (1990)
Produced by Todd Rundgren, and he runs the gamut of 80s overproduction: burying the artist's individuality under
layers of sluggish synths obscuring the melody, corporate rock guitars ("Living Color"), thundering handclaps and arty string quartets ("Évian")...
it's analogous to Tori Amos's disavowed debut.
And even when the backing tracks aren't overdone, the lyrics lack the spirit of her later work ("Sad Beauty," the domestic violence
study "So Kind").
The only plus is that Sobule, in seeking to avoid being drowned out, sings much more forcefully than on her later outings ("Tell Me Your
Dreams"). Sobule does sneak in a couple of excellent bossa nova tunes, which would become a trademark ("Too Cool To Fall In Love").
Eric Jacobson is responsible for the omnipresent keyboards; other musicians include Michael Shrieve (drums),
Michael Rhodes (bass), and Sobule, Sid McGinnis and Rundgren (guitar).
Jill Sobule (1995)
Refreshing after the claustrophobic first record, the backing here is mostly jangly rock, with some variety:
country-western elements ("I Kissed A Girl");
Roberta Flack-style mellow pop ("The Couple On The Street," flute included); absolutely perfect bossa nova
("(Theme From) The Girl In The Affair").
There are sharp character studies that confound expectations, like the party-hearty store manager in "Karen By Night," and plenty of
catchy tunes ("Good Person Inside").
Ultimately, though, the album's hollower than her other work, because it tends to be about nothing more than how clever
Sobule is: the lister's engaged intellectually but never emotionally.
Sobule played guitar and some bass; producers Brad Jones and Robin Eaton played guitar, bass and keyboards; Sam Bacco, Kenny Malone and
Ross Rice played drums. The big guest is Al Perkins, pedal steel on "Trains" and "Now That I Don't Have You." (DBW)
Happy Town (1997)
If her previous disc lacked depth, she makes up for it here, going after certifiably heavy subjects like the antidepressant culture
(title track), the Christian Right ("Soldiers Of God")
and the Holocaust ("Attic"). Yikes! None of them are handled flippantly, but they don't sink into bathos either, thanks to her keenly
observant eye. Sobule also finds room for more character sketches ("Underacheiver") and relationship songs ("Barren Egg," a wry look at
free and easy love), and terrific melodies like the singalong "Bitter."
Most of the tracks are uptempo indie rock with country elements like standup bass, and lots of sharp details: the harmonium at the end
of "Barren Egg"; little bursts of loud guitar in the slow confession "Clever"; the bizarre clarinet/harmonica break on "Half A Heart";
"Happy Town" is an experiment with drum programming while "When My Ship Comes In" samples Motown.
Again, Jones and Eaton produced and contributed many backing tracks, though Sobule plays most of the drums in addition to her usual guitar;
Perkins plays on "Sold My Soul" and Steve Earle duets on "Love Is Never Equal."
Pink Pearl (2000)
Though a few of the love songs and character sketches are blah ("Claire"), the good songs are Sobule's best yet, and she's firing on all
cylinders: wry social commentary ("Mary Kay," a sympathetic look at a pedophile teacher),
twist-filled portraits ("Lucy At The Gym"), lighthearted despair ("Heroes"),
and her most cathartic rocker yet ("Someone's Gonna Break Your Heart").
Stylistically it's similar to Happy Town with less emphasis on country-western and more homemade-sounding synth (the procrastination anthem
"One Of These Days").
"Rainy Day Parade" was originally from the Mystery Men soundtrack.
For some reason, Sobule handed over drumming chores to Neil Rosengarden and Mickey Grimm; most of the bass is by Michael Rhodes though Eaton
and Jones were still around - they also produced with Sobule.
Underdog Victorious (2004)
Things are not going so good for Sobule: she was dropped by her label, and the opening "Freshman" complains about her
finances and living situation, envying those who traded their childhood dreams for filthy lucre. It may be intended as
tongue-in-cheek, but comes off as mawkish self-pity.
She's using the same ingredients as before - wistful ironic love songs ("Thank Misery"), offbeat character sketches (title
track), semiprecious musings ("Jetpack") - but this time nothing quite works.
The pop culture references seem random ("Strawberry Gloss"; "Joey," a pallid ode to Joey Heatherton), the breakup lyrics
don't resonate ("Angel/Asshole") and the message numbers fall flat (the pro-gay "Under The Disco Ball").
Most importantly, though, the music is dull: folk-rock without captivating melodies, interrupted by the occasional weird noise
(omnichord on "Freshman") but without the dashes of country, bossa nova
and noisy guitar that kept her previous albums varied and entertaining.
On the plus side, there's one lovely love song - "Nothing Natural," sparsely arranged with strings (Chris Carmichael and David Henry)
and clarinet (Jim Hoke) - and an energetic, country-western hidden track. Along the lines of "When My Ship Comes In," "Cinnamon Park" is based on a sample, this time of Chicago's "Saturday In The Park."
Sobule played most of the guitars; Jones and Eaton produced and played most of the bass and keyboards; Mickey Grimm did most of the
California Years (2009)
Sobule raised the $75,000 to make this record through her web site, promising donors everything from a T-shirt to a chance to duet on the album. I hope they're happy with what they got...
As the title indicates, reflections on her West Coast relocation, with plenty of diary-ish musings ("I took the Prius/It gets good mileage"), a few story songs ("Mexican Pharmacy") and the occasional pop culture nod ("Where Is Bobbie Gentry?").
Songs like "Nothing To Prove" have an anti-label, career-defending defiance that puts me in mind of Janis Ian's God & The FBI, but Ian couched it far more artfully. More often than they're irritating, though, the songs are overly coy ("Sweetheart," with a weak switcheroo ending; "While You Were Sleeping"). The one clear winner is "Wendell Lee," a laundry list of failed relationships that manages to strike a universal tone precisely by being so specific.
Musically in the same underdone mold as Underdog, folk-rock with occasional country touches, and none of the melodies are at all notable or memorable.
The jig is up.