The '90s spawned a pop music trend inspired more by the garage sale than the pursuit of great art. One by one, groups began dusting off old tapes, sorting them into neat piles (possibly marked "inferior songs" and "second-rate takes"), and releasing them to the masses.

Not even the surviving Beatles could resist the mania. Remember all those years ago, when George Martin declared that all the unreleased Beatles tracks were, in his words, "pretty much rubbish"? It must've been one fab trick, then, to recycle them into six "Anthology" CDs. Then came the Beach Boys, turning every second of studio banter and noodling from the "Pet Sounds" sessions into a four-CD box set. And so on, and so on...to what end? To cash in, perhaps. But that such discs are in demand could be taken as encouraging--a sign that everyday fans are fascinated by the creative process behind the music, bum notes and all.

If a rummage-sale mentality that's spawned this trend, it's only fitting that Jars of Clay has dubbed its new outtake disc "The White Elephant Sessions." A clever bit of marketing, it's available only as a "bonus disc" when buying a copy of "If I Left the Zoo." Listeners get an extra baker's dozen cuts for their money; Jars of Clay breathes new sales life into their current gold album. And diehard Jars fans who already own "Zoo" might just be tempted to buy it again to get the "White Elephant" disc. Should they give in? That depends largely on whether one views this "White Elephant" in its proper context. It's unreasonable to expect 13 outtakes, demos, and alternate mixes to play like a polished album--and to be sure, these don't.

But are the cuts interesting, engaging, funny, or revealing? Put another way: Does this wing of the "Zoo" house any pet sounds worth checking out? Yes. The one revelation on "White Elephant" is "Fly Farther," an unreleased gem that dates to the "Much Afraid" sessions. Roughly, this song is Jars' equivalent of Marc Cohn's "True Companion"--a sweet ballad celebrating love and fidelity that lasts a lifetime and transcends death. Cast against a spare background of acoustic guitar and cello, vocalist Dan Haseltine renders a chorus that is at once homespun and poetic: "My, time flies, but we'll fly farther/Into the night where the eyes of loneliness can never bother." Sensitivity has always been a Jars hallmark, but Haseltine's delivery resounds with heartfelt frailty. And no wonder: "Fly Farther" was recorded around the time of his own nuptials.

Nothing else on the disc quite reaches that peak, but that's not to say it isn't worth repeated listens. As a whole, the 13 tracks possess a scruffiness that doesn't sound forced or calculated. Those who have seen Jars perform "unplugged" will recognize a similar vibe, though many of these demos are more fleshed out, augmented by drum machine, electric piano and rudimentary electric guitar.

With their fully realized hooks, harmonies and melodies, the "demos" could almost pass for alternate album takes. From "Zoo," "Can't Erase It" and "Goodbye, Goodnight" sound like full-scale models of the real thing. There are some notable (and fascinating) differences, though. The drum machine rhythm on the "Can't Erase It" demo drips with John Lennon slapback, while the mock sea-shanty vocal on "Goodbye, Goodnight" sits higher in the mix than on the album cut. It's also more arresting: Drawn out to a surreal extreme, it sounds as if sung by figures in a Magritte painting.

The best of the demo batch is "Headstrong," a track that appears on Squint Records' "Roaring Lambs" compilation CD. There's nothing fancy here; just acoustic guitar, tremulous electric piano, and a few wisps of harmony. But the track has a haunting quality to it, as if it poured out of gray clouds over Liverpool.

In the odd animals section, the demo of "Coffee Song" opens with someone goofing on Lennon's "Jesus apology" press conference. "Kaylos" amounts to 42 seconds of a laughing blues man loop, and loops of studio banter spice "The New Math," a funky cut that ends with a scratchy snippet from a math instructional album.

As for the remixes, "Unforgetful You" is worth noting for its heavy dance-groove slant. It's accompanied by several other remixed "Zoo" tracks--and while all make for fine listening, none seems to pack the same wallop as its original album mix. That's a small objection, though, given that "The White Elephant Sessions" maintains an inviting, informal feel from start to finish. That might not sound like a big deal, but keep in mind this is a band that by its own admission can take itself a tad too seriously. Here, Jars of Clay loosens the musical collar; on "Zoo," they broke out of the alterna-folk box and took welcome chances with their music.

In that sense, the two discs complement each other and demonstrate what puts Jars a cut above other Christian bands: Never do they get so wrapped up in their gospel message that it puts a choke hold on the music. "The White Elephant Sessions" might not offer all of the depth and texture of the album it accompanies. But obviously, it wasn't meant to. And give Jars credit; rather than hawking this collection of demos and remixes as a full-priced album, they're offering it as a freebie for buying their latest effort. We can only hope that other bands take notice, and start a new trend for the current decade.

Return to Beliefnet @ the Grammys

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad