Jess By the Lake is a solo project of Jasmin Saarela, singer of the band Jess and the Ancient Ones. While her main band is known for a heavy psych sound featuring a bit of the occult, her solo project has more of a down-to-earth, singer-songwriter character. Imagine classic rock from the 1960s and the early 1970s, mixed with a bit of David Bowie and – Danzig. Jasmin sings, plays guitar and piano, and her vocals are somewhere between Janis Joplin and Edie Brickell. The band owes its name to the fact that Jasmin grew up close to nature, a defining experience as we are told, and you can definitely hear that this is music that stems from a rural setting rather than an urban one.
All of the album’s eight tracks are melodious, but not in a catchy or repetitive sort of way. All songs have an intricate structure and a dreamy, contemplative character. In some you can sense an unspecified longing, while others are marked by deep melancholia. However, the mood never turns depressive. The pre-released track Nightmare is even a bit cheeky and triumphant. In general, the music is rather playful and distinctly feminine.
Lyrically, the album comments on the nature of existence, on interpersonal relationships, relationships between men and women, but also between parents and children. Interestingly, two songs on the album also deal with the relationship of a female artist to the men that have gone before her in her chosen genre. How to deal with their partly sexist legacy while simultaneously loving their music? Well, as you’ll see, Jess By The Lake have some interesting suggestions about how to handle that dilemma.
The album’s opener Under The Red Light Shine introduces you to the band’s interpretation of classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s, a time of awakenings, protests and struggles for liberation from all sorts of fetters, societal and personal. Freezing Burn confirms that setting. The Wait adds a bit of David Bowie to the mixture. Halo is the first track to stand apart from the rest, starting out with quiet singing and minimal musical accompaniment, but getting lusher and louder towards the end. And then follow Nightmare and Legacy Crown, and Glenn Danzig enters the picture.
Nightmare and Legacy Crown both contain references to Danzig, musical, lyrical, and even conceptual. Nightmare, for example, replays a scenario from many a Danzig song – a hunter tailing helpless female prey – but with switched roles. The female protagonist of the song is not only a woman that won’t let herself be hunted; she will do the hunting. She is “Sharp as a knife / fast as a rifle / loud as the thunder / mad as the anger under”; she is every sexist’s nightmare (hence the song title). The track’s cheeky character and rather happy tune suggest that she is quite happy with what she is. This, therefore, is one of the suggestions by Jess By The Lake on dealing with a sexist legacy: You need to turn the game around and add some irony.
Legacy Crown stands apart from the rest of the album for many reasons: Because of its length, because of it structure and soundscape, and because of its direct references to Danzig’s most famous song, Mother. The track starts out dark, broody and ominous. However, midway through there is a complete turnaround. The music takes up pace, is steadier and more rhythmic, as if someone woke from a stupor. This is where the textual reference occurs. “Mother,” the lyrics state, “I won’t take your wounds to carry.”, and “Father, I won’t take your pins to bring me down.” Deciding and stating what you yourself will and won’t do is certainly a much sounder and more reliable strategy, than telling other people how they should act, which is what the original does. You can ever only control your own behaviour. This is the second suggested course of action regarding a problematic inheritance: Don’t follow it blindly, examine it, build on it, improve it, give it a different turn.
The album continues with My Hands, a much more positive, softer, and brighter track. Yet, the last piece, Interstellar, is again soaked with melancholia, musing on the nature of existence: “Life can be long, it can be short, or nothing at all.”
Under the Red Light Shine is a satisfying and intelligent album, a good debut. If you like singer/songwriter music, classic rock from the 1960s and the 1970s, and strong, expressive, female vocals, then this is for you.