Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ours - Ballet The Boxer 1 [album review]

Officially released in June (released early to pledgers in May)

I suspect the names "Jimmy Gnecco" and "Ours", the name of the band he leads, will not register with most readers of this blog. Gnecco is one of my absolute favourite music artists and has been a woefully underappreciated talent throughout his career, which most recently saw the release of Ours album number four a few months back, Ballet The Boxer 1. Gnecco may usually operate under the banner of a band name (his first solo album, The Heart, was released under his own name in 2010), but he's always been the dominant creative force behind the outfit, not unlike the way Trent Reznor primarily works under the Nine Inch Nails name and calls nearly all the shots within that group. Since Ours' stellar debut release in 2001, Distorted Lullabies, Gnecco's musical output has rarely disappointed my ears, doling out a wide variety of sounds that are always highlighted by the singer's exceptionally dynamic and emotive voice that ranges from a beautiful falsetto to one of the best in key scream-singing abilities in rock.

For Ballet The Boxer 1 (the first part of a loosely concepted series of music that Gnecco cryptically discusses in this excellent recent interview with Music Vice), Ours abandoned their decade-long frustrating relationship with the major music label system and turned to crowdfunding platform PledgeMusic to finance their project. The campaign sailed well past its financial goal, receiving 1047 pledges that included incentives like autographed albums, getting your name in the album credits, Skype or iChat time with Gnecco, a private acoustic performance from Gnecco, spending a day with the band, and handwritten lyric sheets (not the originals) by Gnecco of any Ours song. I opted for the latter and it's a testament to my deep appreciation for Gnecco's music that even in the midst of a much longer than expected unemployment stretch that had really stretched my finances, I never balked at paying the $55 for a CD of the album when it was finished and Gnecco's handwritten lyrics to one of my favourite Ours songs ("Sometimes"). Unencumbered by the artistic compromises one must make under the major label system, Gnecco has stated that Ballet The Boxer 1 is Ours at their purest.

Quickly evident to Ours fans upon initial listens of Ballet The Boxer 1 is the dialled back production from its predecessor, 2008's magnificent Mercy (Dancing For The Death Of An Imaginary Enemy). Most noticeably, there are fewer multi-tracked guitars, as well as a little less of a presence from guitarist Static, who provides compelling sonic textures to Ours' sound. Still intact, however, is the trademark Gnecco intensity that permeates all but one song on the LP. The slow build, measured thump of album opener "Pretty Pain" is followed by the urgency of "Emergency", one of a handful of songs from Ballet The Boxer 1 that Gnecco brought with him to jam on with Velvet Revolver's Slash and Duff McKagan in 2011 during collaborations to see if Gnecco would be a good fit to replace the band's singer, Scott Weiland (Weiland's spot remains vacant). Another one of those songs is "Coming For You" and it's impossible while listening to it not to wonder what kind of touch Slash might have added to a Velvet Revolver version. That's not to diminish the version here, though - it's actually one of Ballet The Boxer 1's best tracks. The album's finest moment is "Sing", which beautifully alternates between buzzing guitar choruses and restrained verse sections, underpinned by a pulsing bass line and percussion that, at times, produces a rather locomotive-like sound. That effect fortifies the impact of the track's opening line (the song was written about Michael Jackson): "Don't throw yourself under the train/Control yourself some other way/And no more tears, it's time to let go/Sing for me, sing for me, sing for me". Also meriting mention are album closer "Fall Into My Hands" (with a lengthy instrumental outro), the mid-tempo "Boxer" (Gnecco's impassioned delivery of the opening lines "I'm not scared/Maybe that's the lie" gives me goosebumps every time I hear it), and "Devil", a hauntingly dark ballad that's as good a place as any to demonstrate what Ours is all about to the uninitiated. Getting back to that aforementioned "one song"..."Been Down" finds Gnecco going into full-on 70s soul music mode with a laid back track driven by a smooth bass line and high-in-the-mix drums, both played by the musician (Gnecco, whose main instrument in Ours is guitar, also played drums on all but one of the album's tracks). Because I'm not much of a fan of that style of music, and because it's such an anomaly compared to the rest of Ballet The Boxer 1's material, it took a good 20+ listens for me to embrace the song and finally appreciate its funky charm. 

The DIY approach, which also allowed Ours the freedom to do things like release different song mixes and make Ballet The Boxer 1 available to pledgers the day after mastering on the album was completed, seems to have served the group quite well this time around. This collection of songs arguably ranks as Ours' most consistently exceptional yet, with nary a weak track in the bunch. Moreso than just about any other artist I'm a fan of, Gnecco's music always leaves you with the feeling that the man has poured every ounce of his creative and emotional being into his work, which is one reason why his cult following is so loyal and also why we can't understand how it is the rest of the world hasn't similarly fallen in love with the songs of Jimmy Gnecco and Ours.

Rating: A