Jars of Clay 20 - As reviewed by the Phantom Tollboothpick-of-the-monthA first-rate retrospective that finds the beloved foursome still very much at the top of their game.



Label: Gray Matters
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Duration: 20 tracks (88:46)


It has often been said that time flies like an arrow. While the actual physics involved in such a saying may or may not be true in the strictest sense, most of us who are old enough to remember where we were when we first heard the opening strains of the inaugural Jars of Clay single, “Flood,” will have to admit that it’s hard to believe that nearly 20 years have elapsed since the ground-breaking self-titled debut – from whence the song was lifted – first hit the shelves on that fateful Tuesday in late October of 1995.

Of course, given that the members of the band were all very close to 20 years of age when the inaugural album dropped, and are now either pushing, or have pushed past, the 40-year mark, some amount of hindsight seems inevitable, as evidenced by last year’s superb Inland record, which found the quartet in a conspicuously reflective mood, tackling subjects such as uncertainty, regret and the loss of youth with unflinchingly refreshing candor.

Given the underlying melancholy of that outing, one could rightly consider 20, despite its being comprised of mostly already-released material, as a companion piece of sorts to Inland, given the undeniably reverse-looking nature of the two efforts. That said, rather simply than celebrating their first two decades as a unit by merely tossing out another best-of collection, a la 2007’s The Essential Jars of Clay, the foursome has wisely opted to pull together an assortment of radio hits and lesser-known tracks and present them in brand new pared-back acoustic arrangements.

As with any such undertaking, the artists in question are faced with the daunting task of deciding whether to remain mostly true to the rhythmic and melodic structure of the original compositions or rework them into something altogether different. As it turns out, the Jars collective has done a little bit of each. Cuts like “No One Loves Me Like You,” “Collide” and “Something Beautiful” – none of which, interestingly enough, appeared on the Essential anthology – stay fairly close to their previously-recorded incarnations, and, yet, gain a certain undergirding cohesiveness when rendered together in the acoustic format. Likewise, the stripped-down approach of “Safe to Land,” “Tea and Sympathy” and “Fade to Gray” offers a closer inspection, and correspondingly greater appreciation, of their underlying lyrical depth and immaculate instrumental beauty.

Impressive as these mostly faithful renditions are (and they most certainly are), the results are every bit as remarkable when Haseltine & Co. throw caution to the wind and drastically rework their existing material. The driving modern rock aesthetic of “God Will Lift Up Your Head” is traded here for an engrossing alternation of terse neo-New Wave rhythms and slow, languishing blues textures. Likewise, the country-tinged “I Need Thee Every Hour,” which first saw the light of day on the 2005 Redemption Songs album, is retrofitted this time out with a markedly livelier pace and more shimmering accouterments which arguably render it superior to its predecessor. On the opposite side of the coin, the winsome mandolin and beat box percussion-driven “Love Song for a Savior” is retooled here as a sweeping orchestral piece that does very proud the legacy of the rightfully-beloved classic.

Perhaps more than any other installment in the Jars canon, 20 offers something for nearly every member of the alt-pop/rock crowd, regardless of their level of familiarity with the group. Longtime fans will surely be drawn in by the newly-fashioned arrangements and the fact that “Ghost in the Moon,” from the Nashville Indie Spotlight 2014 project, and the heart-rendingly beautiful (and previously-unreleased) “If You Love Her” aren’t available on any of the band’s proper albums. Casual followers, too, will want to investigate the new record, even if they already own the Essential anthology, since over half of its tracks weren’t on the 2007 collection. And even those who are completely unacquainted with the JoC collective would benefit from picking up the new effort, simply because its contents are so uniquely engaging.

These days, when the next big thing seems to pop up, burn out and disappear completely within the span of a few months, it’s somewhat heartening to see a band manage to navigate the ever-fickle waters of the music scene for two decades with all of its original members intact. Even more encouraging, though, is the way in which the four Jars men are still able to consistently craft music that equals, or in some cases even surpasses, that which was recorded before many of their current fans were even born. And it is the very way in which the 20 project points to the multitude of past gems crafted by these former Greenville College students while simultaneously hinting at even better things to come that renders it such an absolute joy to hear.


Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth