Note: Tickets purchased for the Turf Club show will be honored at the Entry show.
The nicest thing anyone has ever – ever – said to Jo Hirabayashi, frontman of Jo Passed, is that his band’s debut album sounds like “fucked-up Beatles”. Titled Their Prime, the LP does sound like fucked-up Beatles. It sounds like, somewhere across an ‘80s universe, Lennon and McCartney discovered Can and Neu!, and maybe a little Sonic Youth and XTC along the way. Opening with “Left,” it demonstrates that timeless knack for dreamy melodies – chord progressions that sound like they were created in a land far far away. Lyrically, however, it’s imbued with a philosophical longing for answers to questions that have resurfaced for the first time since the explosion of counterculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“We gave you everything, what’s left?” asks Jo in the refrain. It’s a question about art, about socialism, about the point of life. Considering the heaviness of the record, it’s relieving to find Jo in his home studio in Vancouver (the unceded traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations) with a regular tendency to burst into chuckling fits. You could put the laughter down to a nervous energy, and a charming one at that. Despite the fact that he’s crucially aware of the world around him crumbling, he’s not lost sight of his sense of fun. His approach to Their Prime was to create a collage record of everything he’s inspired by. The last track “Places Please” he says is his attempt of trying to make Grouper dine out with Frank Ocean, whereas “Undemo” is This Heat versus Leonard Cohen. “I was trying to infuse different sounds I thought could really work,” he explains. “Like, what if Nick Drake fronted Swans?” I suggest Nick Drake might struggle in that role. He laughs again.
On the West Coast, Jo has been part of the DIY music scene since his late teens. Initially it was just him and his high school best friend Elliot Langford against the world. They were the “freaky music weirdos” and they began their own band projects. Jo was pretty sure that it would be two of them riding into the sunset – or maybe the gloom – together. Personal circumstances and the phenomenon of the late 20s return of Saturn (for those who believe in astrology) got in the way. Their band Sprïng called it a day. That’s where the life of Jo Passed began. The idea of a band dynamic is far more appealing to Jo than solo projects, and the current incarnation of Jo Passed feels like its most robust yet.
That old blues hound dog Bonnie Raitt probably sang it best and most lucid in her timeless, pedestrian hit “Nick of Time”: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.” And so now, her wise lyrical turn seems to be ringing true for Oakland muso Dick Stusso. When we last caught up with this Bay Area BBQ gaucho on his debut, Nashville Dreams, he’d hit that special zen layer of loserdom. He’d thrown up his hands into the folly of failure. He was the affable, bumbling red-cheeked drunk lurking around the edges of the cookout — bumming smokes, putting down all the white wine and cocktail shrimp he could get away with.
But now, a couple years on, that early-30s existential dread has crept its way into Dick’s purview. With his sophomore long-player In Heaven, Stusso’s numbered human days are on his mind. Without stumbling into pomposity, Dick has taken back the wheel on his life and is doing a bit of hotdogging. The album sounds so assured, you’d never guess the whole endeavor was almost completely down the tubes. “I was about 75% done with the album and then my apartment got burgled,” Stusso said of In Heaven’s bummer origins. “They took it all.” Having laid it almost exclusively to tape, there weren’t even files to pull from. But what seemed like another sour turn for Dick actually ended up being a little lemon zest in his G&T. He ended up teaming with psych visionary producer Greg Ashley in a defunct old church, making for a leap in fidelity on In Heaven.
The new peacock strut to Dick’s vague longing and malaise suits his countrified T. Rex sound quite well. Exhibit A: album standout “Modern Music,” a sort of State of the Union and State of the Soul all set over a warm, gauzy glam bass line. “Nobody wants to look at the dark heart, I don’t blame you/Nobody wants to look at the dark heart, myself included,” he sings a low-register Orbison sneer. “I’m just looking for a good time and a little cash-uh.” Employing deft songcraft, which includes a wide open ambient midsection to really get you thinking about The Void, Dick manages to take down both capitalism and the bullshit conditions of human mortality without sounding all that put out by either.
The son of a sax player who gigged with Tower of Power, The Doobie Brothers and Huey Lewis, Dick was warned early on to stay clear of the musician life by his old man. But after a youth spent clerking in indie records stores and learning about country music through YouTube deep dives, Dick got the bug. Towards the end of In Heaven, Stusso gives us the gorgeous, loping ballad, “Terror Management.” The song stands as his salute to scholar Sheldon Solomon, whose Terror Management Theory essentially states that all human activity and culture are based in a fear of death. “On an unknown trajectory,” Dick croons, seemingly half-drugged, half-consumed with death anxiety. “I wish I had a better handle on things.” And as the song wraps with a lovely upright piano arrangement, you hear someone, probably Dick, tell the engineer to cut the tape. “That might be good enough,” he says, seemingly all too aware of the forward march of time and eager to get started on his next timeless jam.