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.

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