Written by Mark Gurarie
If you’re a fan of guitar music and live in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts—a region that includes college towns like Northampton and Amherst and post-industrial cities and towns like Easthampton, Springfield, and Holyoke—you likely have seen or heard of True Jackie. It was within the local live circuit there that I came to see them, and every time I did, they carefully and consistently blew my eardrums out (in a good way) with their powerful and lush walls of sound. A three-piece band that spent most of its years known as The True Jacqueline, the trio has quietly released loud music since 2011. And their latest EP, the sparkling and bright Oh Um—the first under their new moniker—finds them in good stride: pushing forward pop-inflected, well-crafted tunes while continuing to experiment and test boundaries.
What always strikes me about True Jackie’s approach is their balance of melodic ideas with periods of sonic chaos: teetering between tightly controlled phrases and parts where the lid gets blown off. They call their sound “sometimes sludgy, sometimes poppy,” and the description sticks. The opening peels of Noah Dowd’s guitar on Oh Um’s first track, “Self-Help,” set the table: laying a foundation filled with Brian DiPippo’s spacious but sharp drumming, distorted bass, and infectious melodic hooks. But bassist and vocalist Kate Dowd’s (Ex Temper) equal parts vulnerable and self-assured delivery—and astute lyrics—completes the meal. “Obsession and perfectionism / Mask a metaphorical resemblance / To what’s inside that you can’t find,” she sings, evoking the ambiguity that permeates the song. The aim, it seems, is to point to the futility of the project of working on yourself; “No one’s even listening anymore / A shout in the void / An encore / Just for yourself.” Throughout this EP, True Jackie works with subtlety—to poke at inner contradictions, to be self-conscious without navel-gazing—which is a rare feat.
Nothing on Oh Um seems superfluous; every element serves a purpose, making the sound seem more significant than its three constituent parts. It may be tempting to see them as the grandkids of Yo La Tengo or any number of similarly-minded ’90s indie bands (with some, like Sebadoh, hailing from the same Pioneer Valley), but to me, True Jackie flowers in the garden built by dream pop and shoegaze bands, such as Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine. “Fantasy Sweeps” opens with a flourish that would fit on the former’s Souvlaki or the latter’s Loveless. But whereas the shoegazers tended to keep their massive walls of sound intact, True Jackie can deftly and strategically pull back. It gives room for lyrics to take the driver’s seat while allowing the heavier melodic lines to work as sonic responses. The song addresses the little fantasies about ourselves that we hold as truths to keep us going. Ingeniously, the first line, “Mirror me mirroring / Shards of truth dissolve,” is reflected and distorted at the beginning of the second verse, “Mirror me shattering / Fixed identity.” Coming as it does at the tail end of intricately structured verse sections, the song’s refrain—“Looming reason in sight / It’s only an illusion affirming failed perceptions, I know / Over and over, it’s over”—simply smashes over your head.
In many ways, Oh Um is an expression of existential angst; what does it mean to live and struggle in a day and age when so much is falling apart? Indeed, the tight pop structure and pleasing hooks of “Alien TV,” the EP’s middle track, belie a distinct feeling of dread. You can’t help but tap your toes as Kate asks, “If we’re all already ghosts / Just energy filling space with starts and stops / Killing time as time kills us / In a world falling apart / Is there no reprieve?” True Jackie isn’t a new band, and thankfully so; their latest is the mark of a trio that, as it enters its second decade, knows what it wants to do and be.
Score: 8 Pollenate Me!
Mark Gurarie is a poet, writer, and musician from Northampton, Massachusetts. He has a solo project called MG & the TV and plays guitar and sings in the post-punk band Teen Driver.