Better late than never review of Essie Jain's The Inbetween CD released in May of this year.
[Ba Da Bing / Leaf; 2008]
Looking back, Joan Baez's high, heady trills seem eerily indicative of the unspoken melancholy that plagued the late 1960s in America: Baez's songs, no matter how upbeat, are seeped in a vague and persistent longing for something better, something less devastating. British-born singer and songwriter Essie Jain doesn't sound much like Baez-- she's not a folk singer, exactly, and her voice is often deep and direct where Baez's is light and warbly-- but her second LP, The Inbetween, is heavy with the same odd, pervasive uneasiness. From the nervous, scuttling piano notes which open "Here We Go" through the fog-horn desolation of the extra-grim "I Remember It Just Like This", The Inbetween is quiet and desperate, a trembling testament to general disillusionment.
Jain's minimal compositions-- most tracks feature only vocals and piano or acoustic guitar-- are dark and distrustful ("There is not an innocent man around us who isn't under siege," she bellows in "Please") and tinged with an otherworldliness that earns her comparisons to freak-folkers past and present-- especially Vashti Bunyan, Sandy Denny, and White Magic's Mira Billotte. The cinematic bleakness of The Inbetween can be wearying, but it's also the record's central conceit; its atmospherics are at least as essential as its songs. Consequently, The Inbetween becomes the kind of record that leaves its listeners craving melodramatic context (walking despondently down a mysterious alley, fedora deflecting light rain, face obscured)-- anything more distinctive and tortured than just slouching over on a living room couch.
Jain had a track ("Why") included on the Slim Moon-curated The Sound the Hare Heard (alongside a slew of singer-songwriters, including Death Vessel, Sufjan Stevens, Thao Nguyen, Wooden Wand, and Laura Veirs), and her ghostly 2007 debut, We Made This Ourselves, placed her squarely within the new spook-folk paradigm. All of Jain's work is focused, mostly, on her lingering voice: It can be deep and prodding or high and vaporous, depending on the moment. "Do It", one of the richer tracks on the record (it includes piano, guitar, and drums), is also one of the strongest-- Jain's vocals, raw and uncorrected, nudge and jab. In "Here We Go", a steady piano melody and twittering drums back up Jain's playful, jazzy vocal line, one of the lightest included here-- "Oh, oh here we go," she grins.
The Inbetween is a remarkably wistful album, the kind that can be trying or cathartic, depending on when and how you listen, but Jain's voice is mostly stunning-- it's indicative of her precise time and place, and, accordingly, means something to all of us.
- Amanda Petrusich, November 6, 2008