Album Review: Is Sarah Jaffe Too Big To Fail?

Earlier this week, in the wake of the release of Sarah Jaffe’s second LP, The Body Wins, and an album release concert last Saturday at the Granada, the Dallas Morning News ran a photo gallery on its website with the headline, “See Local Artist Sarah Jaffe Through the Years.” While the gallery was certainly, in part, an effort on the part of the paper to monger a few extra clicks on the back of a popular local musician, it also curiously summed up an air of local excitement that surrounds Jaffe’s young career. The pictures covered a period from 2007 through 2012, revealing photos of a carefully cultivated public figure who seems to have done little more appearance-wise than acquired at least one dramatic haircut since 2007. Does Jaffe’s career at this point really demand a retrospective look?

Maybe that kind of attention is what is really noteworthy about Jaffe’s sophomore effort hitting shelves (or iTunes) this month. As much as the attention Jaffe has received since she came on the scene five years ago has to do with the local audiences that have embraced her, Jaffe has been the recipient of a lopsided amount of local media coverage, which ends up saying as much about the media itself as it does about the musician’s own output.

You likely know Jaffe’s story by now: She’s a 21 … 22… no, wait, now it’s a 26 year-old singer-songwriter who is “wise beyond her years.” And are you ready for this? On her latest album she –gasp– went from playing acoustic guitar folk, to … playing an electric bass! And drumming! And using electronic beats in her music! Have we never heard anything like this from Denton, TX, or Dallas, TX, or, for that matter, where is Jaffe from?

Perhaps that’s the question that helps us get to the heart of how Jaffe’s perceived success is a product of the careful orchestration of Jaffe’s image. One local music industry person told me last week that Jaffe doesn’t claim Dallas, and yet when I saw her perform at the Granada Theater just two hours later, she does exactly that. And that’s what gets me. Why does it matter?

This seems to happen anytime a local act achieves some national notoriety. Everyone fights over the claim to this human being and his or her achievements, whether it’s fair or not. Usually the fame cycle involves a North Texas musician getting big and then the local media chases it. That pattern exemplifies the major holes in the supposed clairvoyance of local taste-makers. They have been so often wrong about what will actually break, and have ignored many musicians who did go on to national prominence, so often, in fact, that it has been a point of both contention and amusement for years.  But with Jaffe, the hype was locally grown and locally produced. She has been a much safer bet on success than many other local acts, and so bet the local industry has, from the beginning.

Just look at who Jaffe surrounds herself with. Tactics Productions booking person Kris Youmans was her original manager and cellist, and her current band is filled with industry vets. At the Granada show, each was applauded with equal zeal when she graciously introduced each one. The whole evening had an air of “too big to fail,” since there were such big names involved. Jaffe had AT&T Performing Arts Center talent buyer Becki Howard playing violin on the record, and the singer led the Granada crowd into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the Granada’s own Gavin Mulloy late in the show. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but the show felt, just as Jaffe’s career has at times, like a celebration of the local music industry’s working parts rather than what we’re being sold: Just an artist singing from the heart.

Or is she? The rate at which Jaffe is constantly tossing out covers of currently popular material and trying to change up her musical style could be the sign of a true artist who is willing to take chances at every turn and not ever play it safe. But it could also be the actions of a person who has bent at will to market forces and industry voices since day one. So does her new record, The Body Wins, fit the description of being a vast departure from her first record?

There are certainly more instruments in the new release, and it features richer production. Ultimately, however, it is a rather unsurprising mixture of mostly light and self-reflective pop music, still based around the fairly straightforward singer/songwriter conventions. There is the occasional distorted guitar or clipped electronic beat, which almost seems there in an effort to blow the average critic’s mind, those who have the patience to sit through piles and piles of by-the-numbers, vaguely emotional acoustic folk. The album may also sound groundbreaking to fans who pore over every promotional photograph of the artist’s career. But it’s really just a pop/rock record made by a local songwriter. No more and no less. And when you have an artist who once listed Broken Social SceneArcade FireFleet Foxes as her admitted influences, what is so hard to believe about Jaffe making this record?

Perhaps the most remarkable trajectory here is that producer John Congleton’s production on The Body Wins sounds drier and tighter than ever, and Jaffe is slightly rougher around the edges. They meet somewhere in the middle. Congleton’s Dallas take on the infamous Chicago sound (which involves pointing one million used-car priced microphones both at and away from a drumset, thus soaking up the room acoustics) noticeably really appears only once, which is probably best for both artists’ careers. Congleton has evolved into a much more gimmick-free producer. The forced atmosphere and theatrical sound effects of his earlier work has largely gone away, which is refreshing.

For her part, Jaffe seems less indebted to the class of 2007’s valedictorians of popular song, whom she once seemed to shamelessly ape. It was always hard to understand why a musician who sounded like so many other famous singers of her day just had to be one of our premier musicians. Though Jaffe has grown to sound more like herself than she ever has, being completely unique is not how she’s achieved recognition thus far. It has depended far more on being able to replicate a sound that has already proven to be successful elsewhere, and that’s a dubious ability at best, unless you’re a black metal band. On the new album, the only time she ever completely devolves back into this mockingbird crutch is on the song, “Mannequin Woman,” where her emotive vowels could be the forlorn moaning of almost any other top-five singer from the past decade performing similar music.

The actual phrase, “The Body Wins” causes some discomfort a few repetitions in. This mind versus body cliché is not as profound as it should be (even when used as a chant), and it might make a better drinking game — a shot for each time it’s uttered on the album — than something you sob into a pillow. The phrase signals the start of the record, before being repeated elsewhere, such as in “The Way Sound Leaves a Room” (also the name of her 2011 EP), a title that should be a tenth-grade Physical Science lesson as opposed to an indicator that you should feel heartsick upon listening. It might also work as the title of Congleton’s instructional guide for aspiring producers someday, come to think of it.

The Body Wins is not that different from her earlier music, just dressed up a little. But the mood and atmosphere are more or less the same. She didn’t get any happier, even if there are more upbeat moments. Her track “Glorified High” is the most obvious piece of catchy single fodder she has ever produced, and it tellingly follows me from shower to office and back. But it’s probably too nuanced and intricate to be a smash.

What happens, then, if the album doesn’t pan out into late-night television appearances, summer festival dates, selling out big venues in the Midwest, world tours, and the gifting of luxury sunglasses, etc — then what? Pitchfork oddly didn’t even link to her name when they mentioned her in a briefing on Centro-matic’s tour plans last summer. If they aren’t making fun of you on Hipster Runoff or mocking you on Saturday Night Live, are you as famous as we’ve been told? Or are you able to muster a one hit wonder hit half as big as “Walking in Memphis?”

Plus, despite the careful publicity orchestration that surrounds her, Jaffe’s PR has not been universally successful. In just the past week, I’ve had at least two public relations professionals complain to me about how hard it was to get Jaffe to cooperate with a scheduled shoot, or a wall of publicist’s barbed-wire to cut through until it just wasn’t worth it anymore. In another interesting PR situation, one national website that focuses on gay identity and the media went so far as to call Jaffe’s representative  “a sad case of the homophobic-by-default publicist,” after a refusal to cooperate with a simple year-end “Top 10” request. Publicists are already subject to a variety of insults, but I must say, I had not heard that one before. It all gives the impression of a publicist who believes that part of making a celebrity requires acting as if their client already has the clout that comes with being a superstar.

But the real question is this: where has the bar been set for Jaffe – from her publicity, from the heaps of local media love, from the adoring local fans who seem to hope that they are hitched to a band wagon going places – for one singer’s fame in this music economy? The problem with bullying the public on how famous someone will be from the embryonic stages of one’s career is that, five years into the cycle, we’re still waiting for Jaffe to be our next Norah Jones or Erykah Badu. That hasn’t happened yet, but with the latest album, the pressure to become Dallas’ or Denton’s or North Texas’s — or whoever and wherever wants to claim her — couldn’t be higher. And to whom is that most unfair? Sarah Jaffe.


  • anon


  • P.J.

    An utterly fantastic piece. It’s refreshing to finally read a critic who asks the most important question of all, “Why?”.

  • jackson sampson

    makes me wanna stick jellyfish in an fishbowl with LEDs.

  • J.B.

    Wait, She’s not Gay?

  • DJM

    Interesting to see how the very magazine that YOU WORK FOR has been extremely supportive of this young woman, yet you choose to bash her and her art work. You sound quite angry. Get over it! Life is too short to rip people apart at your choosing! Hope you sleep well at night knowing that you hurt people with your venomous words. You are toxic to say the least!

  • charlie brown

    Yes, Christopher…WHY is a good question….like, WHY THE F YOU WOULD WRITE SUCH A HATEFUL ARTICLE.

  • JL

    @Charlie Brown I’ll tell you why he wrote it. ATTENTION. Congratulations Chris….it worked. The pathetic writer sees nothing but good reviews…so what makes the most sense? Be different! Even if it means looking like a complete idiot. Well done sir! You chose a real classy path here!

    This is nothing short of embarrassing. You need to probably consider another career…or maybe you could get a new hair cut…or be gay….oh wait…those things don’t have anything to do with your career or you as a person do they? You have some real nerve. This sounds like a personal vendetta against Sarah…not an album review. No class whatsoever. I feel pretty sorry for you and DMagazine should really rethink treating PEOPLE this way. Consider my business and respect gone.

  • Jeff

    This isn’t hateful at all. Mr. Mosley just speaks the truth, something most people aren’t used to hearing.

  • I have always wondered that too…

    Thank you.

  • JL

    This is not truth. Breaking down the album or music…that would make sense. It’s hateful, poorly written and embarrassing.

  • I have always wondered that too…

    I remember her way back in 2004 or 05 at open mic nights… I like her songs but , i never felt it was any different than any other random sad girl with an acoustic singing about being lonely with her head down. Lots of people can relate and there are plenty of guys that sing the same way sorta.. I think the point Chris has is who surrounds her… the ones that made her ” big” ? and why isn’t she “big ” yet? and the homophobe refererence to ya know who? I heard that shit before, so weird.. Interesting point… possibly the ones who helped her are also a wall ? uhhh… dunno…Ever notice same people that get write ups and win best local acts always stay here? and it’s not easy to get in that circle of musicians that keep getting that pat on the back…They might change the band names but the musicians are the same that win every year. What about The O’s? or Salim Nourallah? It’s not putting them down but there is something to be said there… there’s a lot more music happening here and that’s a good thing… we should start opening our minds more

  • JL

    We SHOULD open our minds. Hiding behind a computer and bashing PEOPLE, much less local artists, is not the way to go. I thought D was better than that. Oh well. The angle worked Mosley. You got your attention. Now what?

  • truly yours

    Hey JL, care to tell me which parts are poorly written or hateful? I’d be interested in hearing specifics. Your “truth” is subjective.

  • CC

    @JL, the author breaks down his opinion about Jaffe’s album. He also addresses some valid questions that surround the artist. Anyone who goes to shows or sees Jaffe out with her high-ish profile “lady friend” would wonder about these things. There are enough album reviews out there. Some of us like seeing writers dig deeper into issues such as veiled cultural identity/sexual orientation. I don’t see any “bashing” here, just some thoughtful criticisms that go against the monotonous DFW grain.

  • anonymous

    It’s a wonder that anyone in Dallas/Denton/Ft. Worth talks to you at all, and D Magazine should finally pull the plug on your hate filled diatribes, because your stale artist-bashing-schtick-disguised-as-“Album-Review” is getting old. But, since you’ll keep writing somewhere, please, next time actually REVIEW the album. Pick the album apart song by song, line by line instead of just “critiquing” the scene and its artists.

  • “Hate filled diatribes?” Anonymous, please. I like Sarah Jaffe’s music, and I also completely agree with Mosley’s article. It’s a perfectly valid and nuanced bit of writing. He’s not “treating her unfairly.” She’s an artist, subject to both praise and critical review. Yes, Jaffe is a victim of her own local hype. Instead of being allowed to progress naturally as an artist, the Denton/Dallas music community anticipates another NPR-friendly singer/songwriter to emerge. But is she the Next Big Thing? Maybe, maybe not. Her work is good, but it’s hardly ground breaking. Personally, I’d take The O’s or Telegraph Canyon as more likely success stories.

  • Hunter Hauk

    I’m sure I’ve contributed to the hype in years past with my pieces. Hell, half those shots used in the DMN slideshow were taken for Quick (glad we could be of assistance, btw). But I respect Chris’ assessment, because there’s been such emphasis placed on who’s breaking out, who’s the next big thing. Is there a way to tell anymore when someone’s “made it,” anyway? Do they have to get three blurbs in national non-music magazines, or four? Publicists and bloggers have a way of distorting reality to fit their narratives. Real life’s random and luck-driven, though, and I think Sarah Jaffe knows that. I don’t think she’s doing anything wrong, personally. I like the hair.

  • The hair is pretty cool.

  • JasonM

    Um… wow. This is a perfectly reasonable, balanced article — kind of amazing that some people flip out so much about it.

    Hello – there’s more to writing than upbeat puff pieces. Crazy to think that the press would actually be asking questions, or exploring topics that not everybody is thrilled about. What is this, a free country?

  • Jenny Land

    This is cynicism for cynicism sake… or what I would call diarrhea of an overactive brain trying to impress itself. And that is not me trying to be cynical myself because I have empathy for that since it’s a human tendency we’ve all had at some point, myself included – and more often than I would want to admit. It’s just embarrassing when it’s written by a professional writer and printed in a reputable magazine. As a former music journalist for Billboard, I fortunately learned this embarrassing lesson in college where I purged that tendency to write from that self conscious part of myself and learned to write from the center of myself, where all true authenticity begins. And so I’ve never written a piece where I didn’t recognize that anyone who creates music is doing so from the center of herself… however imperfectly or perfectly or perfectly imperfectly… and that I’m not writing anything worth reading if I forget that. You may have just topped the media machine’s tendency to follow the lowest common denominator, something you were ironically criticizing, but sadly in the end, you just hit the new low. And I’m the first to say that’s okay. All things good grow from humbling experiences. And that’s what I love about Sarah Jaffe. She’s one of the most gracious, humble performers in Dallas, second perhaps only to Doug Burr in this regard. And she also has a wickedly beautiful, hair-stand-on-end voice, something you don’t bother to recognize or mention. That’s the kind a sound someone makes when they are doing something genuine. I just saw, streaming through my facebook feed, a photo of Jaffe unabashedly getting down on her knees and hugging one of my friend’s school age daughters at the show, both of them reduced to irrepressible smiles. And that is anything but the self conscious performer you self consciously accuse of being a cynical player of the music machine. I suggest you find your own center and really listen to her music from that genuine place… the only place where music can truly be heard.

  • ghost of WSJR

    “a former music journalist for Billboard.” That explains the stupidity of every word you just typed. Don’t criticize Sarah Jaffe because she hugged a kid? The “center of yourself” is where true authenticity begins? What the hell does that even mean? I also like how you’ve been able to discern the motivations that lie deep in the souls of both the author and Sarah Jaffe with no evidence other than the fact that Sarah Jaffe once hugged a kid. Is that what you “center” told you to say?

  • Jenny Land

    Your logic fails you. I didn’t say don’t legitimately criticize the music of a musician. I said it’s ironic and telling for a writer to cynically and self consciously accuse a musician of being cynical and self consciously driven by the whims of the music industry based on heresay from the ramblings of industry insiders when all evidence points to the contrary, both musically and personally when it comes to Jaffe. Hey, if you don’t like her music, don’t like her music. Criticize it in an authentic manner. I’m also baffled by someone who laughs at authenticity because its shows a level of cyncicism so deep there is nothing real left – just a black hole of criticism. But even that is your or anyone’s right. But that doesn’t make it any less absurd to attack a musician in a manner where the critique is better suited for the critic. And I will reflect the same mirror in your direction. You just wrapped up a nice and tidy rant that used faulty logic to accuse me of being stupid, all behind the cover anonymity I might add. I was speaking to the criticism of Jaffe’s authenticity, and so it makes perfect sense I might site examples of authenticty to say the contrary. But I won’t accuse you of being stupid. I don’t pretend to be able to discern such things from anonymous postings. I just stopped to say that this article was doing everything it was accusing its subject of doing, a point you fail to counter in an substantive way.

  • truly yours

    wow jenny, i think you just cornered the market on bullshit.

  • I have always wondered that too…

    yeah, wow, Doug Burr is another example that wins best male vocalist every year…and can open any gig at granada or spune production ever if he feels like it(thus getting a larger audiance to play to)he is quite good, but is there no one else in Dallas that comes close??? really??? is the earth flat? the center of the universe? a writer is just casting light on the shaadows or shining light on the wizard behind the curtains… that is all…the gate keepers are holding back Dallas… that’s the point i get… I hope sara jaffe hits it big but if she gets thrown off track because of the people who represent, like the “bearded homophobe” well that is crap… cause she deserves much better at least

  • Ellen

    I’m as big of a Jaffe fan as any and I thought this was a really great piece. Having questions and examining doesn’t make it negative at all. While I can see why one shouldn’t have to be labeled as non-straight at all, I do find the avoidance sad in some way.

  • SteveM

    Superbly written article. Don’t know that I agree with all of it, but that’s ok – it’s sooo much better than the usual “OMG, y’all – Erykah Badu just farted within Dallas’ city limits!” bullshit that is way too typical of the local music press. Kudos, Chris.

  • sarah jaffe and others in her little bland paschalls club all come from post-christian, suburban, white-bread, music as sports mentality where mom and dad organize street teams to get their kids famous for being so deep, so educated, so different, talented and gifted because they can sing songs that other boring people can relate to. the indigo-kids grown up….get a different haircut and blow-up big-time, etc. its all part of the artistic drought in the world. all pomp and circumstance and self-reflexive meta avant-barf. anyone in denton who was in the music community that wasnt trying to sale themselves to promotion companies and brand the town-in the 2000s knows that their club is just corporate crap that stole from every other interesting thing going on in town (at least in terms of context, not musically, because who the fuck would actually want to sound so bland) but refusing to try and even be a part of it, really. i remember being in a house where sarah jaffe was snobbing out over someone having a picture of throbbing gristle on display and less than a year later she is wearing her little boots and army coats and just being such a contradiction. same as when i saw midlake go from looking like dude bros to having some stylist buying them clothes at a now closed-vintage clothing store. they still look like christian dude bros, btw. dans, the city of denton, midlak, jaffe, all of that crap should just relocate to dallas.

  • CMB

    I dug this album review… er, wait what?? No, I really did enjoy this article, despite the fact that it doesn’t review the album. I don’t see this as being hateful so much as slightly irresponsible, yet insightful.

  • Guy Who Just Commented

    I like that the “Ghost of WSJR”(Who Shot J.R.) — one of my favorite sites back in the day — commented against ol’ Billboard music journalist here who doesn’t understand that all the context Malone is giving. This attention is only making Jaffe’s chances to make good, lasting music that much harder. She now has people on her back and, if she fails, all this attention people have been forcing themselves to be a part of prematurely will blow up in their face. As a consumer I feel that it’s like eating a dirt sandwich that everyone tells you is good. You eat it because you’re told, and you like it because everyone else does. Then five years down the road you’re still eating it and someone who actually knows food tells you dirt sandwiches aren’t so great. All you’re left with is an earthy taste in your mouth, and a half eaten sandwich. I can’t say I hate her music, but I don’t want to buy into something early — or be told to — just so I can be there to say so. *Cough* *DMN*

  • Erich A

    It’s funny cause I was reading a review on Pegasusnews (local website) and commented that every single music review on that site is a positive one. I’m sorry, and I know nowadays every precious snowflake needs to have their self-esteem stroked, but you cannot always expect to be praised for everything you do all the time. Artists, musicians, etc fuck up. Like an earlier commenter observed, people just aren’t used to hearing (or reading) the truth. And as for those of you who are getting your panties in a wad over an honest-to-gosh *gasp* critic actually, you know, CRITICIZING, get over yourselves. I’m looking at you Jenny “I used to write for Billboard” Land. Jeez. May ye never breathe another negative word about anything other again lest ye get jacked for it, ya hypocrite!

  • Very well written. Interesting read.

  • Will

    the site was “weshotjr” not who…. just FYI

  • Brandon

    It’s amazing how upset people get over criticism of someone they may or may not know but claim since she is from the neighborhood. Sarah is a nice girl but this article is pretty spot on. There is some fact laced with opinion in this article but the truth is evident. Sarah’s left turn to electro-pop with this album was a big mistake and that’s why she will not break though to that next level. Many music experts expected an evolution of the sound that brought her the attention in the first place. Right or wrong on the decision for the left turn, this album simply isn’t unique, outstanding or actually very good. It’s very ordinary with one very good pop track. It appears this neighborhood is desperately wanting to prop anyone up that will bring north Texas the national attention it deserves for its musical prowess. Unfortunately, this album isn’t that vehicle.

  • Cierria