“Music creates a sort of temporary social apocalypse where the niceties and norms of society are blown away and a radical openness to others is allowed to take its place. … Our new album, ‘I’ve Never Met A Stranger,’ is a toast to all the ways in which we humans bridge the divide between our souls.”
Such is an excerpt of what you’ll find on the homepage of Bumper Jacksons’ website. It’s as accurate a statement regarding these 13 tracks as you could hope to find. There are party songs, there are love songs, there are drinking songs, there are traveling songs, there are sad songs, there are friendship songs and there are poignant songs. In other words, “I’ve Never Met A Stranger” is filled with songs that help souls connect.
It’s made of art that, in one way or another, bridges the divide.
And it’s done pretty damn well, too. “I Sing The Body” exemplifies the upper echelon of the band’s versatility. Soaked in ragtime drums and vaudevillian ethos, it’s a perfect showcase for singer Jess Eliot Myhre. Gifted with tangible charisma and a low(ish), mature voice, her energy shines a bright enough light that it’s a glow in which all the band can bask. The most obvious example of as much comes as she slithers her way through the line “put your back into it” right as the song’s first minute concludes. It’s equal parts thrilling and empowering.
Similarly impressive is opener “Many Paths.” Leaning on the type of music born to be in Woody Allen films, the song somehow feels historic yet contemporary, folksy yet assertive. Reminiscent of the days when a band like Squirrel Nut Zippers could thrive on alternative radio, it’s the musical equivalent of a jaunt through wooded trails and breathtaking mountaintops. Adding to the song’s authenticity is Chris Ousley’s Southern drawl that he contributes tastefully throughout his vocal performance. Add in a prominent pedal steel and you find yourself in a world where Mountain Stage constantly broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry with the result being one mega pot of awesomeness.
Not all the songs here are exotic, though. “Over Your Head” is adult contemporary pop bliss. Led forth by Myhre’s developed croon, its half-funk structure gives the track ample danceability. As the singer advises “You’re in over your head” repeatedly throughout the hook, everything comes together in an infectious manner, creating a chorus impossible to forget for those who love a little sugar with their martinis. Plus, her vocal inflections keep things interesting as that line pounds into … well … your head.
Where the pop turn doesn’t work as well, however, is the title track single. Somewhat of a departure from their roots-laden Americana, the song is straight pop-country schmaltz, complete with occasional pedal steel that makes sure the production resides below the Mason-Dixon. Even so, the track has at least two redeeming qualities: the horns that pop in with stabs throughout the second verse and, naturally, the mildly clever chorus that has Ousley lead the refrain, “I never met a stranger at the bottom of a bottle.”
It’s not that the song is bad; it’s just that the song is so far away from what these guys do well. And what do they do well? Check “Corina, Corina,” which takes you all the way down to New Orleans with its Bourbon Street bounce, quenching the thirst for those who follow the group based on their jazz leanings. “Get On Up” then recalls rockabilly with its uptempo and flavorful guitar work. And “Gimme A Pigfoot (And A Bottle Of Beer)” is a mess of fun, the kind of song you can’t not drink to, especially with its drunken horns (and subsequent woodwind) conveying the stumbles that a late night on the town inevitably bring.
Yet even when their balance seems to be a bit compromised, Bumper Jacksons always know how to get up the next morning, brush off the wounds from the previous 12 hours, and find their way back into the world. It’s that perseverance that has allowed them an admirable amount of notoriety and longevity and “I’ve Never Met A Stranger” documents a band at the peak of its powers, at the height of its maturity to date. Impeccably produced and delightfully varied, this set is impossible to ignore, let alone dislike.
Or, perhaps more accurately, it’s a set worth toasting. Again and again.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***