It would be well-worn and stereotypical, I suppose, to begin this review with a lengthy paragraph about who Jim’s Big Ego is, and how baffling it is that the amount of people who simply haven’t heard of Jim’s Big Ego appear to drastically outnumber the people who love and cherish them (as with all the best under-the-radar bands, there can be no in-between), and about how this logic dictates that you are unfamiliar with the band I’m about to write about, and about how I’m about to change your mind with the sheer force of my prose.
So let’s go ahead and condense that: Jim’s Big Ego are awesome. You should probably listen to Jim’s Big Ego.
That said, I get it, America. I’m not gonna sit here and be like the indie chick you work with who insists that her music is just as accessible as mainstream top 40, but nobody listens to it because YOU’RE ALL SHEEP; while I genuinely don’t understand why Americans largely don’t devour, say, Bleu records, Jim’s Big Ego is a tougher pill for the mainstream to swallow. They’re pop in the sense that they’re generally pretty exuberant and catchy, but they cut the recipe with splashes of folk-rock and white-boy funk; lyrically, ringleader Jim Infantino finds the elusive sweet spot between sincerity and irony, dotting his diatribes with hearty doses of geek-culture references, lefty politics, and paranoia. They’re idiosyncratic, but far from a manufactured quirk act; though one detects a fair amount of Ween’s absurdist humor in some of Jim’s wackier tracks, perhaps a closer analogue is Barenaked Ladies – that is to say, JBE’s quite capable of unforced sincerity, and the quirks merely adorn a song, as opposed to being the song.
Their latest record, Stay, straddles the line nicely, like all the best Jim’s Big Ego records. Their best album, 2000′s Noplace Like Nowhere, parsed personality changes out throughout the tracklist, wherein Jim’s uproarious signature song – the funky, free-form modern-life rant “Stress” – rubbed elbows with “Concrete”, a jangly slice of earnest Gin Blossoms earworm pop. Stay, like Shakespeare, rises and falls in one intrinsically-satisfying arc; earlier tracks “In My Cult” and “Another Thousand Years” exhibit Jim’s signature wit nicely, but operate under a mellower framework, with familiar melodies, tight harmonies, and restrained tempos. (No need to fret, JBE fans – even as a toned-down unit, the trio still manages to slip in references to Shaun of the Dead and boners.) In these earliest numbers, the peculiarities of modern life remain a lyrical staple; “Another Thousand Years” dismisses, beautifully, fears of the imminent apocalypse (or rapture, depending on who you’re listening to), while the central lyric of “Hate Street” (“I gotta find a kinder way than the one that leads down Hate Street”) seems to point the finger directly at the dissolution of social and political discourse into rage and rampant name-calling.
Still, this is a Jim’s Big Ego record, and bursting at the seams with their trademark wry humor. The laughs come fast and furious with the slapstick, jaunty country-rock of “Can’t Stop Foolin’ Around”, which charts a chronic clown’s increasingly-inappropriate (and insane) antics through a series of increasingly inappropriate pratfalls. It culminates, as it should, with Jesus siccing a bat-wielding God on the narrator after he, indeed, “can’t stop foolin’ around”, even in the hereafter. “404 Blues” is abstract, faux-beat-poetry George Thorogood; “15 Seconds of Fame” is a spindly funk number composed entirely of out-of-context Tweets; “You’re Delicious” sounds from a distance like a spectacularly beautiful, folksy love song, until you listen closely and realize it’s told from the point of view of a zombie. It’s a credit to Infantino that he sells the song; even operating under the guise of humor, he’s committed to the conceit, and sounds as sincere as ever.
And yet, Jim’s Big Ego still closes Stay with “Habits & Plans”, one of their most earnest folk tunes. They don’t deflect sincerity and humanity; they merely cut it with a hearty dose of humor. And, perhaps more importantly, they’re terrific musicians; bassist Jesse Flack and Dan Cantor aren’t merely a rock-solid, versatile rhythm section, but spectacular vocalists in their own right, and Stay (like all Jim’s Big Ego albums) is awash in lush, tight three-part harmonies. A tight three-piece with stellar harmonies and a witty, humane songwriter up front? Sounds like you should familiarize yourself with Jim’s Big Ego before that new Ben Folds Five record comes out.
(You can buy Stay right here. Do Jim’s Big Ego – and yourself – a favor.)