Like the Clash, the Jam wouldn't truly come into their own until they'd shed the trappings of the punk genre, forsaking the fashionable anger and nihilism inherent to the movement in favor of greater musical diversity. Unfortunately, unlike the Clash, the Jam never really had much aptitude for the genre in the first place, as they do precious little to differentiate themselves from their more notable contemporaries, lacking the intelligence of Joe Strummer's punk outfit, the catchy pop hooks that dominated the Ramones output and the raw primitivism that informed the Sex Pistol's work, leaving little save a generic punk act trying desperately to fit in with the fads of their times, a conformist band bereft of a true, distinctive identity.
The group's frontman Paul Weller, who handled the songwriting duties for the band, had yet to develop much of a flair for his craft, penning derivative, substandard music sporting the most rudimentary, clichéd punk lyrics imaginable, a me-too approach devoid of any overarching depth, complexity or even competence. His vocals aren't terribly impressive either, as gruffness isn't always conducive to strong punk performances.
The album is a rather monotonous experience, filled with interchangeable punk songs with a pronounced lack of creativity or diversity. Catchy hooks are conspicuously absent, leading toward a bland listen that can't be salvaged by the ubiquitous punk energy the band attempts to cultivate.
Nothing on the album is offensive, tending more toward mediocre than bad, but one can derive little in the way of solace from this fact while he's being subjected to an overall consummately tedious experience. There are a few decent, albeit rather basic, riffs to be found, and the band's homage to their idols the Who, the Batman Theme, at least breaks up the oppressive sameness of the album, but there's simply little that's terribly compelling about the album, merely standard punk track after standard punk track with no relief in sight.
Thus In The City is a sadly inauspicious debut, betraying little in the way of the band's talent or, especially, range. From exposure to this album alone it's difficult to imagine that the band would subsequently metamorphose into a highly entertaining rock outfit once they'd wrested themselves from the shackles of the punk movement, but it simply illustrates the fact that the Jam were never meant to be a punk group, as they were merely the victims of a chronological conspiracy that demanded that they succumb to the fads of their era.
Ergo I can't recommend In The City to anyone, be they Jam fans or punk fans, as the album's neither representative of the band's true abilities nor did they pull off the punk act very well. The Jam's debut is, ultimately, a profoundly mediocre experience, with few redeeming factors. It's neither enjoyable nor involving for the most part, simply a generic, repetitious listen that threatens to irrevocably poison the listener toward the band's subsequent output.
This Is The Modern World is essentially more of the same from the Jam, but that's to be expected given that it was released the same year as their debut. Nearly every defect from In The City is present here as well, with only a modicum of improvements to ameliorate the proceedings and elevate the album to a point that's at least marginally higher than its predecessor.
The album is fundamentally at least somewhat more interesting than the band's prior offering, but not because there were any great strides in the melodic department; rather this mild preference can be attributed to the record's greater diversity, which gives it a slight edge over the monotonous debut.
Not that the album is terribly diverse; on the contrary, the tone is scarcely varied at all, and it's only when contrasted against the nearly stylistically static In The City that this greater diversity becomes evident. Nevertheless, any degree of diversity, no matter how insignificant, is certainly most welcome, hence the appeal of otherwise pedestrian numbers like Life From A Window (a routine ballad, but a ballad nonetheless, a much appreciated departure from the endless onslaught of punk tunes) and I Need You (For Someone) (a track that almost seems like an attempt at a Beatle-esque pop song; it obviously fails, but once again, at least it's a pop song and not a generic punk rocker), along with Here Comes The Weekend and the bonus track News Of The World (which are as close to anthemic crowd pleasers as the album gets).
From a songwriting perspective little progression transpired in the short span of time between their debut and their sophomore effort; Paul Weller is still penning bland, derivative punk songs with no sign of salvation in sight, and he hasn't grown any more adept at effectively using the genre to any unique ends. As short as the album is it can grow wearying rather rapidly thanks to its uniformity, as the newfound mild diversity can't hope to dispel the coma-inducing effect of a seldom interrupted parade of interchangeable, mediocre punk songs.
Thus This Is The Modern World is little but a rehash, virtually a carbon copy of its predecessor (albeit with a bit more variety this time around) with a recurring emphasis on a style that does little more than expose all of the group's shortcomings. No matter how much they honed their craft they were transparently incapable of becoming a good punk band, and their continued efforts in that department are truly mystifying, an act of self-sabotage by a group with apparently not much in the way of self-awareness, a terminal condition that endangered the very existence of the Jam.
Fortunately with time the group would finally relinquish their punk aspirations, acquiescing to common sense and reinventing themselves in a more appropriate form. For now, however, one must endure the continuing morbidly fascinating spectacle of mediocrity that is the Jam as a punk outfit, with this fascination dissipating a few minutes into the album, replaced with little save boredom and apathy.
One normally assumes that any gifted songwriter has the capacity to, under any circumstances, produce quality music, but the story of the Jam proves this to be an erroneous assertion; there are handicaps besides a dearth of talent as a composer that can impede the progression of even the most innately talented musical craftsman, constraints that can sabotage even the mightiest of rock groups.
One such instance of this phenomenon is when a group applies their creative energy in entirely the wrong direction, embracing a style that clashes with their natural abilities. Channeling one's talents in this fashion can prove disastrous, as working against one's own inherent gifts will invariably corrupt one's efforts, no matter how well intended.
Ergo, when the Jam masqueraded as a punk rock outfit, operating in an area they had only a modicum of aptitude for, they sabotaged their own efforts, assuming a style that was completely at odds with their actual specialties. This relegated them to the roles of purveyors of punk music at its most banal and generic, obstructing their actual talents in favor of embracing the flavor of the weak regardless of the fact that it simply didn't suit them, and was thus not even remotely conducive toward generating music of any worth.
Thus it wasn't until they extricated themselves from this self-imposed artificial identity that the Jam's true talents emerged; free of the impediments of their erstwhile persona they were finally able to grow as a rock band, honing their craft and developing into a far superior group.
Pop rock may not seem like that far a cry from punk, but as evidenced by the metamorphosis that the Jam underwent simply by shifting their style from one to the other it had a profound impact upon the sound of the group. Gone was the forced anger, the contumacious posturing and the ubiquitous punk primitivism, replaced by hyper catchy hooks and memorable melodies.
It becomes apparent on All Mod Cons that Ray Davies was as significant an influence on the band as Pete Townshend had proven himself to be in the past, as the distinctly British brand of pop rock on the album bears more than a passing resemblance to the Kinks' signature Britpop, to the extent that the Jam even cover the classic Something Else By The Kinks opener David Watts, a rendition that they acquit themselves quite admirably on, preserving the spirit of the song while still putting their own unique stamp on it.
The album is immensely consistent, as catchy riffs and creative vocal melodies abound, but a few tracks distinguish themselves as particular highlights on the LP. Hence Mr. Clean is a moody piece with great vocal hooks, English Rose is a gorgeous minimalistic ballad and In The Crowd is a terrific individualist anthem filled with excellent melodies and decent if somewhat clichéd and rudimentary lyrics about the dehumanizing effect of conformity.
Overall All Mod Cons is a great album, leaps and bounds above the Jam ventures that preceded it. The group had found their niche, and this enabled them to reveal their true abilities when freed from the confines of the debilitating framework of the punk movement.
The album is probably a good place to start for anyone interested in the band, as it's their first outing to truly depict the group in their element, allowing their talents to shine. All Mod Cons is simply a deeply entertaining record, boasting myriad catchy melodies and unforgettable hooks. The Jam come off as a different group altogether here, as if rejoicing in their newfound ability to employ their gifts to the fullest. While it may alienate punk rock fans I'm sure it would woo many new ones with its fusion of energetic rock and a pop sensibility, and thus the album can be recommended for nearly any rock fan as it's composed of the kind of highly accessible, axiomatically enjoyable fare that can attract listeners from most any end of the stylistic rock and roll spectrum.
Given their primary influences' affinity for concept albums and rock operas it was inevitable that the Jam would follow suit, carrying on their emulation of their most illustrious role models. The group didn't manage to sustain the story of their rock opera for the duration of the album, as many tracks fail to adhere to the premise, but the final product does indeed constitute a legitimate rock opera, albeit a shorter, less developed one than the Who or the Kinks would craft.
The concept of the album centers around three close childhood friends and the disparate courses their respective lives would take, charting their progression through the vicissitudes of time. This concept is highly reminiscent of the premise of Gentle Giant's Three Friends, though I don't have much faith in Paul Weller's knowledge of obscure prog rock groups and thus will exonerate him from the charges of overt plagiarism that one may be tempted to leverage against him.
As I'd said, not every song relates to the overarching story or theme, and thus the focus on the story is muddled and inexact, and therefore never amounts to much. In this regard it's rather dispensable, and hardly ameliorates or even affects the quality of the album to any degree.
Ergo one's assessment of the album will center more on the caliber of the individual tracks as opposed to an analytic dissection of the concept. In this regard Setting Sons distinguishes itself as yet another artistic triumph from the group, further proof that a genre shift was all that was necessary to wholly rejuvenate a band in danger of creative stagnation with a stillborn career.
Setting Sons lacks the consistency of its predecessor, but compensates for this with more distinctive, striking tracks. Nevertheless the filler does mar the experience to a degree, with these misfires manifesting themselves in the form of the criminally bland Thick As Thieves, the utterly baffling, incongruous cover of Heat Wave and Bruce Foxton's obligatory contribution, the rather pedestrian Smithers-Jones that can't even be salvaged by its elaborate orchestral arrangement.
Fortunately there are plenty of highlights to counteract the deleterious effect of the filler. Girl On The Phone is a moody rocker that starts the album on a high note, while Private Hell, possibly the best cut on the record, is a haunting account of the chthonic existence of a housewife with tenebrous arrangements and ominous vocals.
Little Boy Soldiers is a multipart song pertaining to war in a similar vein as the Kinks' Yes Sir, No Sir; while obviously it's nowhere near as strong as its inspiration it's still decent enough, though it may cultivate ill will for its transparent attempt at matching their betters.
Eton Rifles is another candidate for the title of best song on the album with its unforgettable vocal hook in the way the title's sung and its overall menacing feel, while Burning Sky and Saturday's Kids are overall solid fare.
The album tends to be touted by Jam fans as being the group's masterwork; I would beg to differ due to the record's erratic character, but it's still a very strong outing, with some genuine Jam classics and an extremely involving feel. It may not fulfill its artistic aspirations, as it feels like a concept album for the sake of being a concept album with little to say in that regard and the LP's most ambitious cut, Smithers-Jones, is little more than a failed experiment, but Setting Sons remain a very good, if somewhat overrated, album, with some tangible signs of progression from the group.
Oftentimes there are groups that, once they've found their niche, make few radical departures from their successful formula; ergo, in cases such as these, there's rarely a clear cut installment in their discography that towers above the rest of their material, as each album is fundamentally identical stylistically to its brethren.
When this scenario manifests itself the only recourse for a reviewer who seeks to isolate a single LP as the group's finest is to determine which record employs its formula most successfully, using criteria such as which album has the most great songs, most diversity, tightest performances, etc.
Therefore while Sound Affects is, at heart, highly reminiscent of the rest of the Jam's post punk obsession releases, it can still be said to be the pinnacle of the band's efforts, depicting a group at the zenith of their abilities while Paul Weller's songwriting has never, before or since, been so masterful.
The album is bereft of filler, and any given song on it could be said to at least be a minor classic. Hence the opener Pretty Green is a poppy ode to the wonders of monetary currency that immediately captivates the listener with its irresistible melody, Monday is a terrific moody ballad that bests all of the Jam's prior endeavors in that department, But I'm Different Now is a catchy riff rocker, Set The House Ablaze is sonic menace at its finest and my pick for the best cut on the album, Start! "borrows" the riff from the Beatles' Taxman to great effect, That's Entertainment is a brilliant indictment of pop culture, Man In The Corner Shop is a dose of the group's brand of social commentary, Music For The Last Couple is the LP's lone ensemble songwriting effort that gives the other members a chance to shine as Weller's vocals are largely eschewed in place of more exceptional instrumentation, Boy About Town is more fabulous, hyper catchy pop and the closer Scrape Away is a dark rock assault with another memorable riff. Each song has much to offer the listener, the product of meticulous craftsmanship from a group that used to simply toss off half baked, sloppy punk songs with only a modicum of musical worth.
Thus Sound Affects is an excellent album and the group's definitive masterpiece. There's a healthy amount of diversity between the record's ballads, pop excursions and traditional rockers, and some of the tracks, such as Set The House Ablaze, sound nothing like any prior entry in the group's catalogue.
As always the instrumentation is impeccable, as the Jam never fell victim to the absurd philosophy that current or former punk bands are prohibited from knowing how to play their instruments with any degree of skill or precision.
Sound Affects contains every merit from past Jam albums and few of their vices, making for an intensely enjoyable, well written experience. Surpassing even All Mod Cons in consistency and Setting Sons in memorability and artistry, the album represents the best the group was capable of, revealing them to be the excellent rock outfit they had always shown the potential to become, from their time mired in counterproductive punk aesthetics to the beginning of their superb quality streak. The album is an essential purchase for fans of the Jam, and an incredible rock album in its own right.
On their swansong, The Gift, the Jam underwent the greatest stylistic paradigm shift of their careers since their transition from punk into more traditional pop rock. This late period metamorphosis manifested itself in the form of a far wider spectrum of styles for the group, a greater palette of genres than they'd ever had to work with before. This diversification leads to markedly mixed results, but it's still a commendable effort and a refreshing change of pace after remaining largely stylistically static on their last several albums.
Part of this greater diversity arrives in the form of an embracement of R&B and funk, assimilating elements into the mix that the band had never dealt with before. As amateurs in these styles they obviously have yet to attain a mastery over these genres, often betraying their lack of familiarity and overall inexperience in these areas, but it's still a welcome change and one that often pays off in the long run.
One such instance of a successful usage of these new elements is the glorious funk of Precious, a great series of grooves enhanced by superb wah-wah pedal enhanced guitarwork and an incredible trumpet solo. One would never suspect that this was the Jam's first excursion into the realm of funk, as they somehow possessed an innate flair for the genre despite their dearth of experience with the style.
Many of the R&B numbers aren't quite as successful with regards to their implementation, all too often falling flat on their face. Town Called Malice is hardly a stellar number in and of itself, but it's severely exacerbated by the fact that its immediate follow up, the title track, is uncomfortably reminiscent of it with regards to both sound and structure, rendering the sequencing truly baffling, as if the group wanted to expose their paucity of creative musical ideas on this outing.
Many of the R&B tracks simply feel incompatible with the band, compounded by how unsuited Weller is to the genre on a vocal level. His songwriting in that department isn't especially inspiring either, and while it's clear that he'll grow in this capacity over time that doesn't dilute the mediocrity of his R&B efforts this time around, wherein he's given precious little time to adapt to this new musical context.
Fortunately the album isn't solely composed of funk exercises (as, while tracks like Precious are quite good, it's a relief that there are no true rehashes of it, as it's apparent that the Weller isn't quite up to the task of penning a diverse, compelling assortment of funk anthems at this stage of his flirtation with the genre) and R&B posturing, as The Gift is largely redeemed by songs that fail to conform to either category.
Thus Happy Together is a strong track in the band's customary style, Ghosts is a pretty little interlude that manages to be pleasant in spite of its monotony, Circus is an entertaining instrumental courtesy of the underutilized Bruce Foxton and Carnation is another gorgeous ballad from Weller, who had managed to compose a number of that nature for each album subsequent to when the punk infestation had finally come to a much deserved end.
Truth be told there are no overtly bad songs on the album, and some of the R&B is decent enough; it's simply a case of a transitional album that never received a follow up, much like a journey with no destination. Sound Affects was brilliant because the band had mastered its style over the course of All Mod Cons and Setting Sons; The Gift, however, functioned as an introduction to some new stylistic modalities for the band, and doubtlessly on any subsequent albums the Jam would honed their skills in this area, producing an inevitable masterwork in this style.
Unfortunately, with no follow ups on which they'd perfect this new methodology The Gift comes across as somewhat desultory fare, failing to resolve its disparate strands into a cohesive whole. This makes the album appear somewhat amateurish, as the Jam were rather green in the areas explored on the record. This could be forgiven if the LP was simply laying a foundation for subsequent efforts, but as a final album it feels rather muddled, riddled with faults that would have been dealt with in time but are sadly never overcome.
Thus while The Gift is a very solid affair it still comes across as a disappointment for a swansong, largely because of all of the unrealized latent potential the Jam betray in these areas. Regardless of these shortcomings, however, the album is quite good, with a number of standout tracks, from the beauty of Carnation to the highly auspicious entry into the world of funk Precious.
Ergo, warts and all, The Gift can be recommended to any fan of the Jam, as it's at heart an enjoyable outing with some intriguing, if not always successful, departures from the group's norm. All the same I prefer flawed diversity to no diversity at all, and it certainly makes the album a unique and interesting listen.
It's quite likely that nearly every talented rock act, particularly those with as few albums under their belt as The Jam, produced their fair share of worthwhile unreleased material. The natural course of action would be to compile the best of this archived content and release it as a rarities collection, but record execs seldom adhere to logic, and thus they tend to take another approach altogether.
Rather than simply releasing the best of a band's vaulted material, record execs generally err on the side of excess, issuing nearly every last murmur ever produced by the group in question. No five second chord progression is deemed extraneous, resulting in a bloated behemoth where a trim, streamlined forty-five minute album would have sufficed.
The remarkable fact, however, is that record execs don't merely pad these releases with superfluous content to crank up prices or create the illusion of a more robust album. On the contrary, record execs do this for one very good reason: this is what fans want from a rarities collection.
Hardcore fans don't simply want every last sound produced by their favorite band; they demand it. They don't want the filler and effluvia filtered out of their favorite group's canon, they don't want an album that's judiciously edited to weed out the weak links. They want a massive, exhaustive, comprehensive record of everything their favorite group has done, and they won't settle for less.
This results in bloated, unwieldy offerings like Extras, wherein for every lost gem there'll be an array of misfires and embarrassments. At over seventy-five minutes Extras can't help but be an erratic experience, congested with unforgivable amounts of filler.
This not only forces fans to endure a seemingly endless onslaught of tedious drivel, but it also makes it that much harder to find the truly worthwhile cuts that are buried beneath a mountain of filler. Instead of standing out, the best material is almost diluted, or at the very least obscured by the myriad weaker compositions. Furthermore, after one's been lulled into a half-awake stupor by the lesser content, it's difficult to even muster the attention and energy necessary to appreciate superior material and separate it from the dregs of the album.
This sounds like a total condemnation of the album, but truth be told there is a fair amount of good material here that certainly warrants some extra attention. Once one has successfully extricated the better cuts from the rest of the set-list, one will doubtlessly find much to laud about the compilation.
Chief amongst the album's highlights are two superb menacing rockers, namely The Butterfly Collector and Tales From The Riverbank. After classics like Set The House Ablaze and Private Hell it became clear that dark rockers are The Jam's forte, and this pair of tenebrous cuts reaffirms that notion.
Nevertheless, for every solid track like The Dreams Of Children there'll be a colossal blunder like Pop Art Poem, a pretentious demi-song that uses minimalism to mask a lack of substance rather than establish any sort of mood or atmosphere.
Tracks on Extras generally conform to one of several categories, namely B-sides, covers, outtakes, demos and tracks that inexplicably were simply never issued. The best cuts, predictably enough, tend to be the B-sides, with most of the covers being decidedly underwhelming, while the demos and outtakes are simply interesting for historical reasons.
There are some interesting surprises to be found amongst the demos, as Smithers-Jones actually works better as a simple pop rocker with no string arrangements, but more often than not the demos are merely inferior versions of Jam classics. The Eton Rifles, for example, loses most of its power and momentum in this under-arranged form.
As far as covers are concerned, while The Jam performing And Your Bird Can Sing may be intriguing in theory, the novelty value quickly wears off. This leaves the listener with a multitude of uninspired attempts at aping the likes of The Beatles and The Who, though strangely enough there are no Kinks compositions on the album, which is quite surprising given Weller's reverence for Ray Davies and company.
Thus Extras can really only be recommended for diehard Jam fans. Much as I like the group, I wouldn't count myself amongst those ranks, but warts and all I still find the album interesting enough to enjoy it in spite of its plethora of flaws. Were the album to be edited I would doubtlessly enjoy it far more. As it stands I can still call Extras a decent collection, but this praise comes with severe reservations.