Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Show review: Jamaican Queens at The Empty Bottle, 3/23

By Gene Wagendorf III

Jamaican Queens
My first run-in with Jamaican Queens was last July at The Empty Bottle, when the band were in town opening up for Janka Nabay. As much as I was excited to see the Sierra Leonean "King of Bubu," the lasting memory of that night was this odd-ball trio from Detroit. The group seemed like more of an idea than a finished product at that show, but the foundation for something captivating was more than present. A little less than a year later Jamaican Queens have released their debut record, Wormfood, and I can't stop listening. 

I mean it. I. Can't. Stop.

Jamaican Queens took the stage at The Bottle again Saturday night, armed with the twisted harmonies, toxic beats and unpredictable whimsy that make Wormfood so remarkable. The band kicked the show off by conjuring up the schizophrenic tune "Annie," slapping the crowd with its unsettling urgency and tumbling momentum before settling into a morphine-sweet chorus. The rest of the set was marked by what has become Jamaican Queens' calling card- a mix of hip-hop energy and dreamy wordplay alongside psychedelic drifting and electronic angst. The songs are calmly bitter, disconnected and yet earnest, romanticized dreams sizzling with loss and disappointment. The world in which the trio operates has been abandoned by convention, and strange things are growing wild. The characters that JQ populates this landscape with are hopeless, numbed by violence and failed relationships.

If this all sounds dangerously lofty, well, it is, and the successful translation of these ideas into engaging music is no small accomplishment. Singer Ryan Spencer infused his vocals with enough cool gravity to seem both hip and vulnerable, and the music followed suit. The ambling acoustic guitar on "Wellfleet Outro" was magnetic and crisp while the melody around it seemed impossibly alone. The synths on "Water" signaled the arrival of something queerly grandiose, but then segued into a ridiculously pop groove that Spencer's voice fluttered across with ease. As the band exited the stage the feeling of waking from a lucid dream set in- a disorientation at suddenly being someplace familiar and ordinary when just moments before the bizarre was being so freely explored.

Today Jamaican Queens are a fully-realized idea; magical and alien and just plain fucking weird, but rooted in something undeniably human. Wormfood is a great record, but songs as ambitious as these beg to be played live by a band that can deliver. That's what Jamaican Queens did Saturday night; the only disappointment being that they eventually had to stop. 

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