Jana Pochop – The Astronaut – Album Review
It’s the most wonderful time of the year – new Jana Pochop is here!
Well…it’s CLOSE to here…right around the corner – The Astronaut technically comes out in February on the 4th, but that’s a heck of a lot less sleeps than it is until next Christmas, and new tunes from Jana are about the best early present you could ever get – so treat yourselves! Unwrap this record right away.
It’s been no secret over the years since I’ve been listening that Jana is one of my all-time favorites. Right up there with some of the most incredible ladies leading the way in the independent music-scene for all the rest to follow…artists like Chasing Jonah and Annie DiRusso come to mind as well…all different styles, but no doubt that Jana’s in that rare pool of talent that doesn’t just make amazing tunes to listen to – every one of the names I’ve cited here is a born leader & visionary artist. Pochop and I go way back now – nearly five years friend-o! Amazing! Even more incredible when you consider the fact that she’s made great music in every single one of the years the followed since I first started listening back in 2017, where she made a major impression on me with a brilliantly catchy & insightful cut she had called “Money & Heart.” From there forward, it’s simply been stunning victory after victory for Jana when it comes to her music-makin’ career – her side-project onetwothreescream ended up on our top-ten list at the end of 2018, and she’s remained on my playlists in all kinds of ways, from personally here in behind the scenes, to publically on the SBS Podcast as well.
So YES, dammit – I’m EXCITED! Aren’t you when a favorite artist or band of yours puts out new tunes?
Even from the moment I pushed play on The Astronaut and “Headspin” started up the set-list, I could hear she’s made upgrades somewhere in the process once again, continuing a streak of improvements that have had her sounding better & better throughout the course of her career. The clarity, sparkle, and shine in this first tune is spectacular, and instantly helps reveal that inherently unique specialness in Pochop’s music…the endearing magic that truly only Jana is capable of creating. There are always gonna be a lot of great artists & bands out there folks, that’s the facts – but when it comes to identity, style, and sound…there’s no mistaking Jana’s voice when you hear it. Whether it’s the sweetened, humble tone of her vocals, or the perspective/personality that she puts into her words, or both – I’m not even remotely kidding when I say she’s got more of a defined identity as an artist than most will ever be lucky enough to have. “Headspin” is every bit as much confirmation of that as any other song I’ve heard from her in that regard – to me, there’s no mistaking a Jana Pochop song for anyone else out there in the scene today. Y’all know how priceless and amazing and incredible that IS, right? As she began to sing on this first cut from The Astronaut and started to reveal the remarkable imagery in her thoughts & words, I had to sit back for a moment and simply smile. You gotta understand…I’ve been cheering as hard as I can for this one-of-a-kind artist from the very minute I started listening to her…and I ain’t gonna lie to ya, it practically brings a tear to my eye in hearing how much Jana has locked into the heart of her craft. “Everything feels good locked into place,” as she’ll tell ya herself. Mind you, you can HEAR it too…just in case you need further proof…you don’t necessarily need to take her word for it, or mine if you don’t wanna. With the sensational brilliance of the trumpet added by guest-star Ephraim Owens being about the best extra-element to a song you’re gonna hear this year, and the pure melodic magic Jana’s created in the harmonies of the chorus of “Headspin,” this cut makes an instantly favorable impression on your ears; it’s designed to move the hearts & minds out there listening, and it succeeds in this mission, 100%. Credit to Shawnee Kilgore and Mark Hallman for their assist on the backing vocals too! Jana’s awesome & she’s always gonna be the natural star of the show, but she’s surrounded herself by a bunch of equally inspired artists throughout this set-list as well, and really brought the best out of her material as a result. “We were promised flying cars…and world peace poured out of moonshine jars…” – I LOVE the way she writes & the way her brain works on such a remarkably unique level so much different than the rest do.
You get that nice hit of the ol’ lap steel guitar at the start of “As Long As It Feels Right,” courtesy of Lloyd Maines…and c’mon y’all – that’s always a welcome sound to the ears ain’t it? You gotta dig just how much detail that Jana has put into her new album and the instrumentation that comes with these new songs…like I was tellin’ ya, she’s not only an all-star herself, but she’s surrounded by’em now. And YEP – this is right about where I jump on my high horse and tell ya that I’ve been callin’ this all along – talent attracts talent dear readers, dear friends…and where it might have once been tougher to find key collaborations like you’ll find throughout The Astronaut, towards the beginning of her career like it is for any artist out there, the people have caught on to Jana’s uniqueness and now line up to work with her. “As Long As It Feels Right” does an excellent job of mimicking its sentiment equally through the words and through the sound itself…there’s a natural ease & comforting, warm vibe that flows from start to finish…the kind of sensory experience you’d wanna find in a song called “As Long As It Feels Right,” you dig? I think…hmmm…what do I think? I think that…well I think that Maines can’t help but stand out for the contributions he makes, the lap steel guitar is just one of those elements that is always going to catch our attention as listeners – and the dude knows how to make those strings find the perfect glow to support the main melody in this cut. That being said…I’m gonna go with Frank LoCrasto’s keys and synths being the unsung hero of this track…what he’s adding in might be a bit more hidden in the mix for some of you out there, but a lot of what he’s playing is exactly what provides the level of sincerity and sweetness in the music that we want to hear in tandem with Jana’s words & vocals. Ultimately, the biggest advantage of “As Long As It Feels Right” is potentially also this song’s biggest obstacle – it’s very laidback overall, and right there in the ol’ dangerous terrain of mid-tempo tunes…sometimes that can be a mood-dependent thing when it comes to the masses out there listening. I’m a firm believer that the authentic charm and humble optimism of Jana’s vocals and songwriting is always going to be more than enough to pull anyone on board if they get the opportunity to have a good listen to what she’s singing about & how she goes about singin’ it. She has a delicate approach to a lot of her tunes, and personally I love that…just because a song can be mellow doesn’t mean it can’t still be BOLD and played with all the passion & power it needs to have…there’s conviction in Jana’s vocals you can truly connect with, every time. The way she communicates emotion through her voice & thoughts aloud, is among the very best.
Of course, you know about that already…I’m sure I would have mentioned that in the review I wrote up on the advance single “Matador” from back in October last year…or ANYTHING I’ve written about her to this point in time for that matter. There are a plethora of really good songwriters out there in this world of ours…but there are a tremendous rare few with the gift for words that Jana Pochop has, and that’s the facts. Not an opinion – that’s a FACT y’all. You can hear that gift revealed through her imagery & the thoughtful precision in her word selection…she’s got a vocabulary that far exceeds my own, and of course that opens up the door for her to be able to express her thoughts, emotions, and feelings in ways that others simply can’t – and honestly, it’s a truly beautiful thing to experience. I listen to a track like “Matador” and I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jana could be just as successful as an author as she could be as a career musician if she wanted to be. Then I read her Twitter feed and cross my fingers and hope that one day she’ll go into politics full-on and lead us all into the better tomorrows we deserve and the changes we need. Don’t know if I could just let her put down the guitar for a briefcase though…and I suspect she probably wrestles with the same perspective on that. Anyhow – I’m off track here – “Matador” is a solid cut that fits snugly into this lineup on The Astronaut, featuring stellar assists from Duke Levine on the electric guitar, and the genius addition of accordion via the talented BettySoo. That’s RIGHT – you heard me – I said genius! It’s an essential contribution to “The Matador” – but truly, no stone has been left unturned here, this entire song is played to perfection – read more about my thoughts on this lead-single from The Astronaut by clicking here to read the review I wrote last October.
Her natural gift & talents for songwriting can carry her a long way, and sometimes that’s more necessary than it is in other circumstances. For example, I don’t think anyone’s going to hear “The Hard Part” and feel like Jana’s set out to recreate the wheel with this song – it’s along the lines of something you’d feel like you’ve heard from her so far, but that being said, if you’ve been a longtime fan like I can proudly say that I have been now, you can hear the evolution in the execution and the way this tune is played. Ain’t nothing wrong with simply layin’ out a quality cut y’all – don’t get my words twisted here. The genetic makeup of “The Hard Part” has less goin’ on…we’d all notice that – but that sparse atmosphere ends up leading Jana into a captivating & hypnotic, storyteller’s vibe…and that’s another space she thrives in, however subtle it may be. As a listener that generally tunes into Jana Pochop just as much for the lyricism as I would the sound of any song…I still obviously have a lot of love for “The Hard Part” – I can acknowledge that it’s probably got more of an uphill battle for your attention than the majority of the set by comparison on those first several spins, but it’s tracks like this that add depth & strength to the lineup of The Astronaut overall, and provide the dynamics of the peaks & valleys in the energy we need. I really like how Shawnee’s vocals chime in for the harmonies with Jana’s voice…they’ve both got tones that complement each other, and they’re a consistently successful pairing you’ll find on half the album. Not sure if it’s my speakers on this side or not, I’ll have to test that out…but keep an eye on those levels for the vocals here Jana…gettin’ real close to a red-line when the vocals do get combined at full strength on “The Hard Part” – I think it’s just volume, but it could possibly be some kind of production effect…not entirely sure. Like I said, maybe it’s only on my end…but “it’s a fine, fine line” in trying to navigate a song with the amount of space like “The Hard Part” has, that I can tell ya…that’s where those tiny details in production tend to get noticed a bit more than the rest. The vast majority of “The Hard Part” sounds spot-on as ever, the music is crystal clear, the mood has real weight to it; it’s low-key, but it’s a solid cut.
Where I felt like the added space in the music really worked out in her favor, was on the following track called “Quiet All The Time” – she’s makin’ magic on this cut via another minimalist design. Songs like this allow us the opportunity to absorb her poetic words, the way she dreams aloud, her many, many questions…and the perspective of an artist that seriously puts thought into every syllable she sings. You add in the perfect way that Lloyd’s pedal steel drifts in & accents the melody in this song, and it’s pretty much good game from there folks…songs don’t ever have to be extraordinarily complex to reach their full potential, they just need what it truly calls for, and that’s what Jana & her crew of musical cohorts give to “Quiet All The Time.” “In the wonder of the painting I saw in Santa Fe, a magnificence of gravity that pulled me in and made me stay” – like…c’mon y’all…Jana’s way with words is second to none, and the view she sees the world from is as spectacularly special as it is real & stunningly beautiful. She’s in a delicate battle with her internal thoughts on “Quiet All The Time,” but she’s been kind enough to share that with us as she questions her way through the song’s beginning and delves into vivid description in her lyrics. Jana will always know better than the rest of us what any of her songs are really all about given the fact she wrote’em and all, but I’d imagine that just about every single person listening to her music will find that her words have no problem at all conjuring up imagery you can see in your mind. “Quiet All The Time” comes with that isolated feeling of peacefulness…like you’re right on the edge of the water or staring into the epic space of a canyon…alone, but not at all needing that feeling to change. Comfortable somehow, despite the many emotions, thoughts and feelings expressed…like “Quiet All The Time” represents that place we go in our mind that keeps us safe, reassured, and free from any harm. A place where we can dream, no matter where we are. Jana’s a dreamer – and I love that about her. I’m “Quiet All The Time” in real-life myself…which I suppose is why I go on & on here on these pages of ours, and artists like Jana have her own outlet through making music; the quiet provides the balance we need.
I will…hmm…basically keep us all reading until this time next week though if I start pulling quotes from “Exit Plan” – this is definitely another sparkling gem from Jana’s beautiful mind. I really like that you can FEEL the beat in this song, and yet, there AIN’T one – how cool is that? “Exit Plan” has vocals, guitar, bass, and backing vocals…that’s it, that’s all – and somehow, they’ve pulled off the impossible by having a real pulse in this cut that guides it along just like it had drums. Credit to Mark Hallman, he’s been a steady & reliable player in the mix in a variety of ways throughout this album – the utility man! Every album truly needs one. He shows up on bass here, and that’s a large part of the reason you’ll feel that pulsing energy that nearly comes out as alive as it does. All-in-all, I feel like “Exit Plan” is one of those cuts that brings the X-factor personality of Jana out that much more than the rest…this is the uniqueness of her sound/style in action, where she brings straight magic to what appears to be a simple acoustic tune, turning it into something so genuinely special, no one else could come up with it – you following me? The level of universal appeal in the melody is huge, and having that advantage keeps everyone listening & diving further into the fantastic words she writes the more they hear it. Because make no mistake y’all…Jana’s got so many things goin’ on in her favor it’s damn near ridiculous – from the sheer amount of identity in her sound, to the stunning detail in her songwriting, to the entirely endearing way that she plays her music and shares her thoughts with us…good gravyboat lighthouse folks…my list of what makes Jana Pochop stand out apart from the rest for all the right reasons could go on & on & on. For me, it all comes down to the words…and that’s not something that comes along with every single artist & band I listen to, that’s not my main measurement of what appeals to me in music – if I’m being honest, usually it’s melody that reigns supreme. It takes a ton for something to stand out to me as being the more crucial element of a song than melody, but that’s the effect of brilliant writing when you come across words like this artist is capable of putting into a tune – it can become the most alluring reason to listen. Jana’s proven time & time again that her words are what tend to lead her to the biggest victories; you feel it in the energy of her voice, the way she connects the lyrics to the dynamics of the melody in the music, the sincerity you find in the way she sings…”Exit Plan” has everything I love hearing from her. Alright…ONE quote – “am I saving myself for parts?” knocks it outta the park for me every time – but I’m tellin’ ya…I almost feel GUILTY by just pulling the one quote from “Exit Plan,” because she’s penned some outright magic to this music she’s got here on this song. Hooks are strong, the vibe is upbeat, the artistic depth is as present and accounted for as ever – writing-wise, she’s shining at her absolute best.
…just a moment…
Anyone up for being emotionally DESTROYED and devastated? If you’re really listening to the words of “Solar System,” that’s exactly what you’re in-store for…and this right here, hits real hard for as gentle as the music may be. So YES…of course, I’m more personally attached to this particular track than I might be any of the rest of the set in that regard…as crushing as this can be to experience, it’s the fact that Jana is capable of generating such tangible & powerful emotions in us as we listen that is truly somethin’ else y’all…this whole song is built of the stuff ya just can’t teach. All around, it’s another award-worthy sample of her songwriting, with stunning & memorable, heartfelt hooks that deliver a melodic payload, and a grounded sincerity that has you feeling the sting of the implosion of the relationship she’s written about. Relating it to the “Solar System,” and the creation of a universe intended for two – Jana’s done such an incredible job with the imagery of her words here and how crystal clear this song is from start to finish – the focus displayed here, is straight-up next-level. With the addition of our utility man Mark Hallman in the backing vocals…together with Jana, they nearly tread right towards Bon Iver-esque terrain at time…”Solar System” is built on sensory sound & vivid lyrical imagery from beginning to end. The addition of the cello from Brian Standefer isn’t just essential, it’s spellbinding – and Pochop’s guitar is right on the money here for the twinkling acoustic alongside it as well. I’m just sayin’ folks – I’ve heard a few tunes in my lifetime at this point…I know what perfection is when I hear it, and this is exactly that. There’s not a single thing I’d change here or anything I think anyone could possibly suggest to improve it – this is as outright amazing as I’ve ever heard Jana from performance to production, and a song she should be extraordinarily proud of adding to her catalog. Having said that – she IS gonna make a LOT of people cry BUCKETS of tears with this song…that I can promise ya…take it from a guy that found out.
So look…you create your OWN problems when you write a song as amazing as “Solar System” in that it’s a monumental task for anything to follow something that special…but I’m just sayin’ – there’s an argument to be made that Jana has found a way to get about as close as humanly possible with “Maps” at the end. I know I’M attached to “Solar System,” but if someone out there wanted to say that this was actually the better of the two last songs on The Astronaut, I’d probably get it. I’ll say this with certainty – Jana…friend-o…pal-o-mine…keep Brian’s phone number on speed-dial will ya? Don’t get me wrong, I think every player that showed up on this record did exactly that – they showed UP, big time, and gave their hearts to these recordings, playing their parts to perfection – but Standefer’s got a unique magic that pairs extremely well with what Pochop’s got goin’ on…you’ll hear what I mean when you hear “Maps” at the end of The Astronaut. Eliza Gilkyson deserves a serious shout-out too – I love the way she sings with Jana on this final cut…Don Dixon’s bass is all-pro all-day…Mark gives it the delicate percussion it needed to add more dynamics into this song without damaging its gentle & mesmerizing allure…if there’s something “Maps” would leave you wanting for by the time it’s over, I certainly ain’t hearin’ it. When this track finds the heart of its melody at it heads to the first minute and run through its chorus – Jana finds an absolutely immaculate transition and shifts into one of her most memorable melodies to-date. Definitely not a bad note to go out on eh? She’s saved some of her best for last here without question. The Astronaut starts out big, goes low-key for its middle, and then finishes on a finale that’ll have you amazed at the visionary songwriting Pochop brings to her art & speakers all around the globe.
You can pre-order The Astronaut now before it comes out on February 4th this year, and I highly recommend that you do just that. Jana Pochop is one of a kind, full-stop. Find The Astronaut at Bandcamp here: https://janapochop.bandcamp.com/album/the-astronaut
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