Tobias Jesso Jr. Offers Highly Personal, Melodic Piano Ballads

23 Apr

Tobias Jesso Jr. isn’t the first musician to pack his bags, leave his home behind and travel to the streets of glittering gold in Hollywood, determined to find his fame and fortune. But that doesn’t make his story any less deserving of telling — especially in light of the extraordinary melodies found on his debut album, Goon.

Growing up in North Vancouver, Canada, Jesso longed for a career in the music business. In his early twenties, he made his way to L.A., city of dreams. There, he tried to succeed as a pop songwriter for other artists. But for a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen.

Then, the bad news began. He went through a tough breakup and found out his mother had cancer. So Jesso turned his back on Hollywood and headed home. And of course it was at home where his creative inspiration returned and the result is a set of heartfelt, personal songs that he put together for Goon.

It helps that the album has great producers: Girls’ Chet “JR” White, The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, The New Pornographers’ John Collins, and well-known producer, Ariel Rechtshaid, helped Jesso stay true to the pure, simple feeling of his compositions. There’s a familiarity to the sound — a connection with an earlier era when Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and perhaps even Randy Newman and Elton John/Bernie Taupin were telling their stories.

But these songs are not knockoffs or copycat pieces; these are intimate glimpses into the artistry of Jesso, inspired by the bumps in the road he has experienced on his journey.

The album opens with “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You.” Jesso’s hesitant piano notes are bright and simple, almost as if he‘s at a practice under the watchful eye of his music teacher. “Very good, Tobias. Now again, and try to make it smoother.” Very delicate backing vocals and strings have been added to the otherwise spare arrangement.

“How Could You Babe” is a sad song about a lover who falls for another man. It’s performed in a soulful way that’s reminiscent of Carole King from the 1970s, with Jesso’s vocals channeling Randy Newman, only without his southern drawl.

“Without You” is not a cover of the Nilsson song, but it’s certainly a piano ballad cut from the same cloth. On “Can We Still Be Friends,” Jesso sounds like Sir Paul McCartney on some of his solo work, with a Beatle-like orchestral arrangement supporting it.

Last, short closer “Tell the Truth” is an exhortation to himself to continue to be truthful in his songwriting. “You know you should,” the chorus keeps reminding him — and us.

The first several months of the year have seen a number of piano-based singer-songwriters come out with excellent albums, most notably Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. Jesso’s wonderful Goon is worthy of the same level of attention.

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