The small moments in our lives are often filled with the most portent.
We all know these moments, too. When we find our hand on the doorknob, inhaling deeply because we know that opening the door is a commitment to honesty. When we feel that our every effort is part of a Sisyphean cycle in which we are fighting between Hope and her more reasonable sibling, Cynicism. But hope that is compromised is still hope. Love, however blind or disappointed, is better than all other alternatives. So we learn to accept the possibility that, for us, love and remorse might frequently occupy the same space.
We hope that somehow, some day, Fate or Nature will intervene and we’ll be free from the fight within. And yet, we fear détente: What if that fight is truly all we have to offer?
Exploring struggles with self, and the affect these struggles have on others, is the deep lyrical bedrock for the songs on “Man O’War,” the latest album from Dallas based Chin’s Mojo. Consistently compelling and psychologically rich, they challenge our tendency to protect ourselves through illusion. They brilliantly portray emotional obsession as a form of love, and the never-ending balancing act that it demands.
The first four tracks—House of Sticks, Morphine, Benefits of Lies, License to Kill—explore this fertile battleground from multiple angles, in different voices, from within a relationship. The fifth track, the perversely funny “Ballad of Anna Nicole,” lets us step outside for a moment—although it is still ripe with the themes of obsession and consumption.
The powerfully metaphoric “Obviously” brings us back home, demonstrating how moments in our lives are magnified beyond their physical limits. “Drowning Man” positively soars, its exhilarating harmonies and string arrangements underscoring the desperate need to simply be done.
Things continue to swirl about us as we face our ugly narcissistic motives, and our fears of being found out, culminating in the emotional cascade of “Nothing to You.”
These songs are wonderfully put together. The hooks are as tight and plentiful as a pack of Velcro cable ties. Their unique melodies go beyond the usual patter of rock song structure, winding their way on a natural rhythmic path through the lyrics. Lush and full harmonies abound.
As for the band, they are formidable.
Tom Jordan’s vocals are those of a man trying to understand—and trusting we’ll understand—things about himself. He’s not strutting around on machismo-overdrive. He subverts the big rock norm: He’s close, sitting at the breakfast table, trying to rectify another blind spot. If you doubt his sincerity, you still must reward him for his consistency—and for his courage to stand in contradiction to the prevailing inertia.
Marissa Duff stars as Tom’s foil, or perhaps his alter-ego. Her voice is full and round, and she sings with a fluid maturity that must outweigh her by about 20 years. Consider Natalie Merchant, if Ms. Merchant had guts. Or the more recent Grace Potter, without the overacting. Who knows how they found her, but they should never let her out of their sight.
David Long’s bass lines run and jump all over this album. At times he’s drilling deep to lay foundational footing. Other times he reaches from above as if he were single-handedly suspending the Brooklyn Bridge.
Drummer Steve Kautz is gracefully relentless on the kit, the walls, and anything else he can coax into giving up the right tone. Not only is his drumming melodic, but he makes every one of these songs into a dance tune—which, in the opinion of Mr. Charlie Watts, is the goal of a great drummer.
Lead guitarist Pat Sullivan simply fractalizes the bejeezus out of these melodies, intensifying the tidal overwhelm.
But they’re not the only ones sailing on this Man O’War. They’re dazzlingly accompanied by a full symphonic orchestra. The resulting sound is enormous without sacrificing immediacy or intimacy. And all that sound is real.
The orchestral arrangements are fleet and expansive, lifting these songs into broader context, projecting them onto the widescreen. On some tracks, they evoke the epic space of an Elmer Bernstein score. On others, such as “Lucky” and the aforementioned “Drowning Man,” we find ourselves surrounded by the infinitely swelling sea. The band and orchestra form a spine-tingling, breath-taking combination, as the lyrical obsessions reach from left periphery to the right, from the foreground to the horizon.
The attention to harmonic balance, vocal and instrumental arrangements, song structure, dynamics, and progression is stunning. It would be easy for all of this sound to become confused or too heavy, or for the vocals to become lost—especially on an album produced by an independent band in their own studio. Creative liberty often leads to unrecoverable indulgences, but Chin’s Mojo have pulled off the nearly impossible, creating an almost flawless album, one that continually and progressively reveals its many complex facets. And it rocks like a Man O’War.
Those small yet important moments happen in the midst of so much life. Crystallizing them, making them standout among all the other simultaneous moments, is an amazing feat. Repeated compulsive listening to “Man O’War” is warranted. Like its bedrock themes, this album encourages—and rewards—obsessive immersion. Dive in.