Inside the debut album from J. Graves, I found a postcard. “Marc,” it said, “as shown on the cover, this record is my heart and everything inside of me. Thank you for listening–I’m just getting started.” It was signed Jessa Graves, who plays guitar and sings. J. Graves has taken a cue from PJ Harvey: J. Graves is the name of the band, and Jessa is the person out front. That’s almost an amazing coincidence, since I had already thought of PJ Harvey on the first listen and I hadn’t yet read any of the materials. J. Graves, a post-punk trio that also includes bassist Barret Stolte and drummer Dave Yeager, isn’t copying PJ Harvey’s aesthetic as much as it is sharing the same white-hot emotional core.
Jessa Graves, as you’ll realize about twenty seconds into Marathon, is a force of nature. (If you go on the website and see some of the concert pics, that will become obvious.) Her voice has that angry and raw rock-and-roll quiver that might remind you of Polly Jean, or it might remind you of Patti Smith. Her lyrics are an equal partner, full of poetry and catharsis and more anger, and the combination is both devastating and hypnotic. It takes quite a bit of creativity to make a power trio like J. Graves sound this original, especially when you consider that twenty to thirty years ago these open blasts of pure energy were far more common.
Despite the name of the group, J. Graves is an equal partnership between its three elements–Stolte and Yeager might seem like they’re merely keeping Jessa Graves grounded, but they’re the ones pouring the gasoline on the fire that burns within the singer. As a rhythm section they are guttural, gutsy and always pushing the caravan into the night. There’s a simplicity at work here, a sly perfection that reminds me of the “wouldn’t change a single note” power of Television’s Marquee Moon. Marathon, reviewed late in the year, pushes toward the top of my favorite recording of the year.
One more thing: J. Graves has adopted that punk minimalism when it comes to sound quality. My younger brother, still a hardcore punk at 50, once explained to me that the fairly crappy recording quality of my favorite bands such as X was on purpose. It’s the Minutemen’s old “we jam econo” ethic, that big production values are a betrayal to the core values. I had just assembled a new main reference rig with several new components fresh out of the box, and my first impression was that something might be wrong. Then I told myself, “Maybe you should put on something that’s more in line with audiophile recordings.”
That shouldn’t stop you from listening, of course. J. Graves’ Marathon is the most honest album I’ve heard all year. It’s unforgettable.