There’s a lot of tea drinking on Jim Noir’s latest album, but the stuff that once galvanized a proud nation seems little more than a metaphor for the mundanities of daily life: characters stumbling awkwardly out of bed (‘The Tired Hairy Man With Parts’), worrying about getting mugged on the way to the shops (‘Tea’), “smiling” too long down the phone (‘Sunny’) or making trouble on British roads (‘Driving My Escort Cosworth To The Cake Circus’). He’s balanced up the suburban grey with some stylish pop à-la-Noir, the usual psychedelic influences and some things which push in a new direction, but a lot of Jimmy’s Show still sounds rather pedestrian.
It can be hard to change a winning formula. Alan Roberts, the artist originally from Davyhulme, Manchester, who trades under the name Jim Noir, delivered a sucker punch with his seminal debut album in 2005. Tower Of Love was notable for trawling the delights of British psychedelia with a fine-tooth-comb, encompassing everything from classic Ray Davies and The Kinks to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and much more besides. Something of a media frenzy ensued, and popular culture also took him to their hearts with a number of unlikely advertising slots for songs ‘Eanie Meany’ and ‘My Patch’, all of which gives his music that ringtone of familiarity. Noir the musician and one-man-band wears the crown of outsider pop well, a modern-day Kevin Ayers or Robert Wyatt, and his quirky effect-heavy arrangements suggest a Joe Meek-style blend of experimentalism and pop sensibility. He works his sound like The Earlies and The Beta Band, filtering the myriad influences through a laptop, so nobody need ever meet, although to Noir’s credit, he’s always road-tested his new material with in-house band The Beep Seals.
He makes it all sound infuriatingly easy, of course, and that’s part of the charm. And nobody would accuse Jim Noir of letting the grass grow under his feet, with a steady stream of EPs released through his Noir Club since last official release Zooper Dooper in 2010. Unfortunately, if this latest is anything to go, the work-rate doesn’t seem to be transporting him very far musically. His 2008 eponymous sophomore was largely a re-tread of his debut, with the odd foray into electronica, and there’s more than a hint of that on Jimmy’s Show, too.
There’s a nice pop base on parts of this album, with songs like ‘The Cheese Of Jim’s Command’ oozing late ’60s kaleidoscopic charm, swirly keyboard meeting Booker-T-style organ and the ubiquitous Beach Boys vocal harmonies. ‘Old Cyril’, about a man whose job is to pick up chewing gum, is surely some mad paean to Gruff Rhys and SFA, and ‘Time Piece’ is infused with Boards Of Canada ambience, and all the better for that. It’s a three-piece suite that reminds me of the joy I used to get listening to The Beta Band’s seminal Three EPs.
‘Tea’, showing strong psychedelic influences, sounds offbeat in the way Syd Barrett did on Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, suggesting probably something more than tea being consumed (watch the video and draw your own conclusions). And ‘Under The Tree’ is positively Beatles-esque, with a ‘Norwegian Wood’ type sample melody to keep it company. ‘Ping Pong Time Tennis’ sounds rather mediocre until Noir throws in some Joe Meek-style voiceover effects to spice it up a bit.
Sticking with “threes”, the album’s three standout songs are ‘JJC Sports’ with its exquisitely subtle guitar à la Incredible String Band; ’Driving My Cortina …’ which rides off in a ’70s-style wah-wah-created disco sunset, and last but certainly not least, ‘Fishes And Dishes’, with its Moog keyboards and ‘Riders On The Storm‘ melody. The album finally arrives with the latter, the dreamy pause in the middle of the electronic triphop beats particularly delicious, but essentially it is one of those rare moments on Jimmy’s Show, a break from the mundane.
Honorable mentions could go to the other four tracks, but I realise I’m reeling things off in threes. Whichever way you look at it, Jimmy’s Show has still got all its musical bearings, serving as a sort of hitchhiker’s guide to British psychedelia. The problem is it’s easier to sit back with a cup of tea and admire Jim Noir’s music than to get your hands dirty with all its nuts and bolts inventiveness. Repeat plays (and copious top-ups from the teapot) might help matters, but given a choice you’d probably end up putting on on Pet Sounds or Sgt Pepper’s instead. The industry will always need a creative “spark” like Noir: he could be the modern-day equivalent of Geoff Emerick, the engineering sidekick to George Martin’s production for the Beatles (see ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ and others). Ultimately, however, Jimmy’s Show reminds us once again that clever music generally only works if you aim it somewhere at the heart.