What does it take to be a star in the music industry today? I’ve long argued that basic competence and proficiency can get you into a recording studio and into live spaces; the rest is marketing, connecting with an audience on a person-to-person basis and a bit of luck.
Jess Clemmons, who turned countrywards after a brief period as a solo artist who opened for the reactivated Boyzone among others, is obviously a star. On record her voice can soar and boom; in live performance she can transport you into the situations. She is a vocalist and performer whose every word a listener can feel. The late Sir Terry Wogan had her on his Radio 2 show and her first album with the all-British Bandits was a huge success. She’s even getting married at the end of the year, so not much is going wrong in the life of Jess.
Smoke and Mirrors follows up the punchy Here We Go Again, one of the UK country albums of the decade thanks to its hooky songs. The newbie is, impressively, more of the same quality but not of the same sound: you can tell this by the opening two tracks. Both have a gospel choir that turn Jess into a sort of country Heather Small (from M People).
I’m Not Going Home is the addictive first track, with a killer chorus in which the choir threatens to push the band aside:
Oh baby, even when the ground is shaking, my heart is close to breaking, I’m not going home
Oh yeah yeah I’m gonna get my fight on, I’ll take the hits and stay strong, I’m not going home
Even if it’s dark, even if it’s cold, even if I spend my nights alone
I’ve still got a spark stirring in my soul, I’ma keep it lit, yeah I’m not going home
If you feel nothing from that, the syncopated ‘again and again and again – woah!’ bit in the second verse should do the trick. The song is almost made for Chris Country Radio, who has supported Jess since the first album. In fact, any track on this album chosen as a single would fit snugly against the contemporary country coming out of Nashville that is on heavy rotation on the station; new songs by Kelsea Ballerini and Lady Antebellum share the production values of this album, perhaps to make entry into the American market more amenable, if the band are pushing it over there.
The title track, which follows I’m Not Going Home, is a sweeping ballad with the return of the choir and washes of synth, which is the major sonic shift from the debut.
Sister, which Jess has told some writers is the best song she has yet written, is excellent. It features a call-and-response chorus which will really work in the live sphere, and Jess is at her most tender when repeating the title at the end of the chorus. When only the beat and the choir appear after the second chorus, it tingles the spine. This is a sort of modern update on the Carole King song You’ve Got a Friend, and ought to be the next single.
Kings of Summer (‘pirates of the night!’) was the first song released, quickly followed by I’m Not Going Home. The second of these has a better chorus, though the references to Dairy Queen in the former ground them in Jess’ childhood and give her a personality that many identikit singers tend to lack. Jess is no mere vessel, but a key part in the songs themselves.
At Buckle and Boots, Jess and her band – featuring Luke Thomas on guitar adding extra bite and attack to the solos – played a host of new songs which fitted perfectly alongside older classics like My Name is Trouble and Ready Set. The Bullet, especially, is excellent (‘I just wanna fall into it, you’re the kind of risk I wanna take’), showing how vulnerable Jess can be as she accedes to whatever is to happen to her.
White Lies, also part of the live set, is a slowie, delivered impeccably and constructed intelligently around the phrase ‘white lies, black coffee’. ‘The sun’s coming up over our kitchen table/ I was out late, I guess you were out later’ is an amazing opening couplet, and anyone who can use the word ‘percolate’ in a song – as Mary J Blige did in Family Affair when she got it ‘percolatin’ – deserves success. A listener will also sing the chorus whenever they drink coffee, which is smart of Jess.
Start a War, with added ‘oh’s from the choir, has Jess wanting to ‘start some trouble’, proving that the old Jess is still very much around. Line of Fire has a brilliant chorus in two groups of three bars, speeding up Jess’s wish to see the back of a lying chap who ‘never played fair…so now I’ll settle the score’:
I got you in the line of fire, you could try to run and hide
You’ve really gone and done it this time
So shut your mouth and stop talking
I hear you lying too often
Hit the road, keep walking till I can’t see you no more
In a much kinder manner, Fault Lines closes the album with Back to Black-type piano and an Adele-like chorus:
These fault lines they run so deep
They’re shifting beneath our feet
Our love was solid stone but now you’d never know it never was
It’s nothing but dust
This is, to coin a phrase, unfaultable, and is one of several excellent passages of lyrics on the album. ‘Until the spark catches gotta keep striking matches’ is found on World Still Round, a song in which Jess tells herself to move on. There are some physics in the lyrics of the as Jess sings: ‘Time moves on, gravity pulls down/ You don’t love me and the world’s still round!’
Already Written is produced outstandingly to frame Jess’s demands to find a man whose love makes her feel ‘like a song already written’. The verses are full of first-date questions, one of which is about living out of a suitcase and going from town to town. It’s a fantastic love song which will surely accompany some first dances of country couples.
Game Changer is a great title for a song in which Jess offers herself as ‘fireball on your lips…the burn you can’t resist’. Again, it’s a lovely ballad where the listener is seduced, as if by Mrs Robinson, by the singer. Kiss Me Quiet, the next panel in a graphic novel of this album after the come-on of Game Changer, has a keyboard-led riff in its chorus which sounds very 80s soft-rock.
Smoke and Mirrors is an exceptional, varied album that builds on the JATB sound without scaring away old listeners. It sounds very current, and will impress many as the band tour it in 2018. By then Jess will have a wedding ring and a husband, but with any luck she will also have awards and plaudits (and some national radio play, too?). Welcome back, and don’t go ‘home’ to Texas too often!
Smoke and Mirrors is released on September 15. The band are touring in the fall, including a date at London’s Borderline.