Jack Phemister - Death of the Close Minded (Album Review)

Australian folk-jazz singer Jack Phemister is from the small town of Yass in New South Wales but now resides in metropolitan Melbourne. His folk-jazz stylings are imbued with soul-pop, and if two hyphenated genres aren't enough, throw in indie-rock and singer-songwriter for good measure. This amalgamated modus operandi rests on a surface of instrumentation, bobbing between aloof coolness and sincere sentimentality. An artist with considerable control over his voice and guitar, Phemister's debut album, Death of the Close Minded, is about being switched on in a world where switching off is all too easy. This debut follows 2020's EP "Songs Hastily Prepared", a more lo-fi collection awash with similar jazzy chords and vocal deliveries that straddle mainstream and underground intentions, albeit with more innocent songwriting. On his wonderfully produced debut full-length, Phemister displays astute awareness, his songs underpinned by an urgency that's hard to fake. Joined by Thomas Bell on brass, Jack Smythe on Bass, and Kieran Rule on drums (Patrick Barton Grace also plays keys on two tracks), Phemister adds layers of musicality to his already complex songs, filling out the stereo for an impactful sound.  

Whether it's the snotty-nosed literati notions echoing Ezra Furman and Vampire Weekend on "Ice Statues", the outsider folk masquerading as pop in the vein of Paulo Nutini on "Backwards Sideways", or the beach-bum-folk of "Wild out There", which sounds like if Jack Johnson had been from New York instead of Hawaii, there's a lot of energy and focus on the first half of this album. Phemister's songs are built upward from his propensity for peculiar rhythms, snappy writing, soil-like timbre and choice of instrumentation. This often results in grippingly exotic-though-familiar pieces, like the up-close-and-personal "I Know You Know I Know", a sultry amalgamation of hushed acoustic delivery and snug-as-a-bug brass. Yet not even the accessible elements within the songs can make the songs themselves accessible. Phemister is indefatigable as a writer and seems averse to repeating any of his coherent ideas, preferring to twist them out of shape or change them completely. This makes the songs exciting, if not a tad on the unmemorable side. Even the peppier, potential hits like the fun and indelible album highlight "Adelaide" and the catchy chorus of "Infiltrated" might be too haughty to break through the noise and into the mainstream, a place where these songs often sound like they belong but into which they simply don't fit. 

Perhaps herein lies the distinctly ambivalent quality of Phemister's work. Too esoteric to be mainstream, too conventionally good to be underground. It's like when you move to a new school and don't know whether to hang out with the jocks or the hippies, so you just hang around by yourself, writing weighty ideas in your notebook. Yet, it's difficult to maintain impartiality when high concepts rely on stream-of-consciousness lyrics to be communicated. Writers are likelier to expose nuanced ideas that need footnotes, especially when they tiptoe around political issues. The word "vaccine" pops up on the album more than is acceptable (i.e. more than once) alongside lyrics that are vague enough to claim ambiguity, though too compelling not to be taken out of context. However, there is more than enough enjoyment to be found in the frenzied "Matchstick / Tail Light", the building tension of "Limited", and even the neither-here-nor-there humdrum of "Salt Water Lakes" before the title track closes the album in bar-fight energy. 

The hallmarks of this album are the warm production, the aberrant folk songwriting, the coffee-shop jazz vibe of the ensemble, and Phemister's vogue singing style. While the more focused tracks whizz by at an enchantingly whimsical pace, the more subdued numbers can trace the fine line that is middle-of-the-road. And while a few of these ideas jump out and grab you, others may require more effort to see what's happening, often feeling like you're looking for shapes in a sandstorm. That said, "Death of the Close Minded" is a rousing debut with enough heart to match its technical impressiveness.