Saturday, August 8, 2015

Elemental: A Look At The Monumental New Box Set Of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience From Fire Records

What we're talking about today is, quite simply, one of the most significant reissue projects of 2015, and a project that surely took years to birth. I Like The Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, out now from Fire Records, compiles pretty much everything this band released. And considering the sporadic nature of their releases on these shores, that's major news.

The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, as the tracks on this set reveal as they progress, evolved from a rough-edged early Flying Nun act into a near-punk, near-shoegaze band that somehow sounded more accessible even as they got more and more adventurous.

The first album, Love Songs from 1986, is a messy collection in either edition of the record. Released with a radically altered track listing in the U.S., the original New Zealand version juxtaposes catchy singles like the classic "I Like the Rain" with more jarring, near-blues-y explorations like "Einstein", a cut that rivals The Clean's work from the era.

The tracks here, aside from the more accessible ones that made up the U.S. version of this album, are not as engaging as where the band would go shortly after this. Stuff like "All the Way Down" shows the band finding its way and searching for focus. But that focus was sharpened considerably by the time they made their next album.

Take for example, "Shadows" from 1989's The Size of Food. The cut, clearly influenced by rock pioneers like Neil Young, sounds remarkably like the kind of music that Nikki Sudden was producing in various projects. Tinged with a sort of world-weariness, the song captures only one aspect of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience, a band with many, many aspects. It is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of The Size of Food (1989).

The songs on this second album show the band trying new styles, including the rather abrasive "Elemental" which sounds almost nothing like other Flying Nun bands of the era. One wonders if the Pixies records were making headway down under when you hear something like this. The guitars crash a bit and the vocals strain with yearning as the steady beat guides the song forward.

Billed as "The JPS Experience" by the time of 1993's Bleeding Star, long-time fans of the band were both rewarded by the new brilliance of the band's songs on this record and sorta disappointed that they were losing that familiar Flying Nun sound in some way.

I can recall at the time the sentiment that the band had been renamed in an attempt to appeal to dumb American fans who didn't like their bands smart enough to know who Jean-Paul Sartre was, or who didn't appreciate a nod to philosophy in their rock-and-roll. Whatever the reason, The JPS Experience here is a much more assured one. As they blaze through "I Believe in You" they sound fully confident in their bridging of shoegaze, for lack of a better term, and other styles. The cut, like many from this era, is somehow more accessible even as the band gets louder and louder. Taking a page from Nirvana's playbook, there's a genuine sense of fire here that might have been lacking on some of the earlier tracks (the fantastic singles excepted, of course).

And then you've got tunes like that one. "Spaceman" bears a resemblance to the more mainstream stylings of The Jesus and Mary Chain from that era but it also still sounds a tiny bit like The Clean doesn't it? A revelation when listened to in the context of this box set on Fire Records, it's just a standout example of how to successfully fuse multiple genres.

But it's not all shoegaze and near-grunge on the tracks from the Bleeding Star era, as "Still Can't Be Seen" makes so clear. Sounding delightfully like Big Star, or even acoustic T. Rex, here, the band adds a gentle lyricism to their sound that makes it clear that they'd travelled light years from "I Like the Rain" by the time of 1993's Bleeding Star

One of the real revelations of this box set for me was hearing a track like "Into You (Freegard Mix)" next to earlier songs. Crashing in with a wave of guitar noise not entirely unlike that riff in MBV's "Soon", the song is direct and forceful and an indication of the direction this band could have easily pursued following the triumph of 1993's Bleeding Star.

I Like The Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience manages to chronicle one of the great, under-praised bands of the alternative era. Spanning the birth of the Flying Nun sound, eras of jangle pop, and what could only be called shoegaze, the tracks here are all glorious examples of not only those previously mentioned styles but how that rare sort of band could sort of master them all. And, as should be obviously clear from this collection, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience were that very sort of band.

The folks at Fire Records are to be commended for their work here as they have presented in one neat 54-track package, the work of these cats. Serving as sort of a history of those genres I was talking about earlier, I Like The Rain: The Story of the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience is surely one of the most important reissues of the year. Making the previously nearly impossible tasking of collecting the work of this band supremely easy, the box set makes a case for the renewed and continuing importance of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience. A tad overlooked in the wake of The Chills, The Clean, and The Verlaines a few decades ago, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience now sound like a band that was every bit as extraordinary as those other Flying Nun legends.

I Like The Rain: The Story of The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience is out now via Fire Records.