For many, Jay Gonzalez will be mostly recognised seamlessly meandering between keyboards and guitar as part of Athens, AL-based southern rockers Drive-By Truckers. What some may have been unprepared for, however, is him producing one of this years most pleasant surprises.
Following on from his 2012 album Mess Of Happiness is the exceptional mini-album The Bitter Suite. Originating as a Kickstarter project back in 2011, Gonzalez teams up with long-time friend Chris Grehan and drummer Joe Rowe to give life to a power pop opera that manages to cram an extraordinary amount of depth into just under 13 minutes. Whilst all of the five songs featured here are strong in their own right, The Bitter Suite is undeniably at its best observed as one piece, with The Who’s Tommy or the second side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road springing to mind at first glance. The tracks blend from one to another without so much as a pause for breath, with well-crafted shifts in tempo, dynamic and tone punctuating throughout.
The Bitter Suite hits the ground running with ‘Light Side Of The Leaves’, a lyrically-psychedlic upbeat rocker. Quick unexpectedly, Gonzalez’s music is undeniably reminiscent of Crowded House, his voice drawing notable comparisons with lead singer Neil Finn’s in particular. The song moves immediately in ‘Grey Matter’ which, after a fierce intro with infectious, stabbing keyboards, takes on a much slower pace and romantic feel. Shimmering piano phrases frame this acoustic ballad, as Gonzalez sings of life’s uncertainties. Midway through, The Bitter Suite hits a real high point with ‘Almond Eyes’, a touching, no-frills love song, and it is here that Jay Gonzalez’s skills as a songwriter really shine through. As the track plays, there is a real feeling of sincerity to the words. There is no pretension as every note is just enough to bring the song together without feeling overly-saccharin or dumbed down, and it’s a real credit to Gonzalez.
The pace changes up again with ‘&$%@#!’ (literally: ‘Ampersand Dollar Sign Percent At Pound Exclamation Point’), a furious, driving rock song that is perhaps the closest the album strays towards punk. Lyrically, it is the most political of the songs featured on The Bitter Suite , as Gonzalez bemoans an increasing sense of isolation and lack of understanding in a world where, ironically, communication has never been easier. The album concludes with ‘Shenorock Lane’, a quaint, gentle song with a more than passing nod to The Kinks, about the less-than-perfect world of family life.
With The Bitter Suite, Jay Gonzalez has proven that his music is what all good pop should be. His songs are a feast of memorable hooks, relatable topics, expert musicianship and an overall understanding of subtlety. Every track is complete and intelligently crafted, and flows in such a sublime way that it immediately grasps any listener in a firm but gentle grip. Its only downside is its brief length, but as anyone in their right mind will be having this record on repeat for days, you’d be forgiven for not noticing.
The Bitter Suite is released on 7th April