I love it when someone pours their heart completely into a record, leaving absolutely nothing behind. Utica’s J Schnitt is one of those someones. Some of you might know him as the talented guitarist who has been playing live with The Real Burnouts over the last few years, others might know him as a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who has produced a whole raft of albums available on his Bandcamp page. “Speaking Esperanto” was the first time I’d heard him, a 13-track album of near flawless alternative folk-rock anthems that sounded like a greatest hits compilation. It’s unashamedly American, occasionally imbued with the twang of country guitars and shuffling Americana drums, at times like a contemporary take on “Blood on the Tracks” era Dylan. The music is as good as note perfect, intricate and expertly imagined, the voice world-weary enough to sound believable, and yet it is the song and melody where J Schnitt really excels.
The opening three tracks – “Ocean Liner”, “Lewis Caroll’s Daughter”, and title-track “Speaking Esperanto” are three such examples of melody leadign the way. “Ocean Liner” is a toe-tapping piano folk-pop grower with exquisite lines like “once I was the wind in New York City” and a catchy chorus that greets you like an old friend every time you start the record. “Lewis Carroll’s Daughter” is Irish-folk, infinitely cooler than Mumford & Sons, brought to life with banjos and brass. It’s one of my real favourites with more great lyrical brilliance as we hear the story of a girl who pretends “Lewis Carroll was her father for the day”. Upon writing this, I was pleased to discover that J Schnitt is something of a undercover storyteller, and without going as far as giving us definitive characters, you sense that there are real people, not just ideas behind the lyrics, and the words are powerful enough to keep your attention and stop the album slipping away into background filler. Another example of song-story, title-track “Speaking Esperanto”, was arguably the most accessible of all the songs. Another Dylan-esque ballad with intricate acoustic guitar picking, shuffling drums and accordian interludes, as good a place as any to start if you’re pushed for time and want to give this record a chance.
“God Bless The Idiot Swimmer” is a slow parade, a guitar march down your street, leading into “Conversations With A Dashboard Jesus”, another traditional acoustic rock song that grew on me the more I listened to it. Next comes “Monday Loud And Clear”, probably my favourite of all the tracks, one of those melodies that has popped involuntarily into my head and made me say “oh, what’s that? oh yeah, it’s j. schnitt!” With it’s poppy up-tempo tune, Beach Boys’ vocal melody, hand claps and Indie Rock guitars, it’s slightly off-track from the general vibe that runs through the other songs. Funnily enough, in terms of construct it sounds like one of the simpler songs, yet it works simply by being a great little song.
“The Astronaut and The Trampoline” is another stand out. A slow atmospheric track telling the dreamy story of… well, an astronaut and a trampoline. Unless I’m not supposed to be taking this song literally, in which case, it’s an ode to aspiration, a epistle for daydreamers aiming for the clouds. It also sounds like the sort of thing you might hear in a 1960′s suburban music hall, when some touring band rock up in their van and scare the bejesus out of your mum and dad. ”Healing Sores With Fatal Curses” returns to a more modern sound and reminds me a little of Snow Patrol or Travis, the sort of song you expect to discover on late night MTV, again deviating from the country-folk central ground of the album, but making the whole composition all the better for it.
Talking of different, “Magnus 11.99″ is next. An almost splintering vocal take backed with stripped organic instruments that sounds like pistons and machinery, topped off with some kooky keys that are quite brilliant to behold. “Pretend” returns us back to the more familiar acoustic guitar and piano, as close as the record gets to a flat-out bell-less ballad, the instrumentation carefully mapped out, and J Schnitt’s voice at its fragile best. Definitely one for those of you who are stuck behind windows on rainy afternoons and probably not for those of you smoking pot in the park on a sunny afternoon. “It Is What It Is” comes chasing along on its heels, a clever blend of country, folk and pop, probably my third favourite song behind “Monday…” and “Astronaut”. Again, melodically it is one of the simpler songs, but it’s an absolute gem. Probably not for you rainy day window gazers, but for those of you back in the park… fill your boots.
Closing tracks “Walk In The Light” and “Black Cloud” are two of the darker tracks to finish the record. The former has traces of Dylan’s “Gates of Eden” with its rambling half-spoken, half-sung vocals over a bustling tune, and the latter is a creepy, claustrophobic soundscape with electric fuzz and sudden bursts of melody, banjos and pianos and drums, all building to a crescendo that leaves you feeling somewhat dazed and excited to hear the whole thing again from the beginning.
So all in all, I’m suitably impressed by J Schnitt’s “Speaking Esperanto”. It’s a far cry from the weirdness I usually hear being peddled from his Utican peers, far more polished, professional and a watertight vehicle, yet still with a heartfelt motor driving it. It’s more a record of quiet contemplation than a soundtrack to go out and get trashed to, a slow burner on the ground rather than an explosion in the night sky, something you can warm your hands on when the winter nights draw in, with a little bit of something for almost everyone thrown in.