Musically, Jeremy Dubs’ second album, The Words, doesn’t stray far from the formula that made his debut, Speak!, such a wonderful, mind-bending chunk of prog rock. The sparse, electronic soundscapes are still there on his sophomore effort for The Bureau Records (Black Francis’ Western Massachusetts-based label), as is his truly unique somewhere-between-Frank-Oz-and-Geddy-Lee-voice.
The key difference is the lack of reliance on Harry Nilsson. Whereas Speak! served as a back-and-forth conversation between Dubs and Nilsson, covering several of his songs and adding a few originals that cited Nilsson as an inspiration, Dubs wrote more than half of the songs on the new album. But fear not – Dubs adds two more fantastic Nilsson covers to the new record. First up is Sailin’, in which Dubs harmonizes perfectly first with himself, then with vocalist/cellist Vanessa Zaehring. The song floats along beautifully on a sparse electronic background before ending on a bit of a chaotic note, implying the sailing is not as smooth as the song would imply. The other Nilsson cover, “Point of View Waltz,” might be more familiar to folks of a certain age who remember the surreal, Yellow Submarine-esque 1971 film The Point. Dubs, who normally tones down Nilsson’s songs, instead adds some drums to the short tune, making it the peppiest song on the record. (The lack of drums on the record is somewhat surprising, given Dubs’ occasional turn as Black Francis’ drummer.)
Dubs covers three more songs on The Words. The first is “Love in Outer Space,” originally done by Sun Ra. (Let’s hope Dubs doesn’t try to cover as much Sun Ra as he has Harry Nilsson – Sun Ra recorded more than 100 albums in his astonishingly prolific career). Dubs adds his trademark Realistic Concertmate synth but stays relatively true to the jazzy original. (It’s also easy to see the influence that the artwork of Sun Ra’s record had on Dubs’.) Dubs then takes on Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s “New World Coming” – not the duo’s best known song (that would be – by far - “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling) but a great one in the right hands. Dubs strips the song down about as much as possible, using a simple, plinking keyboard and sleigh bell, but lays on numerous overdubbed vocals which shimmer radiantly.
Dubs also puts his spin on a song that has been covered several dozen times, Leon Russell’s “Song For You.” Dubs’ version, however, relies on two “instruments” that no other version has used; the first is a haunting cello, which starts and ends the song, and the second is a wind chime. It’s a brilliant choice – the song is a simple, direct expression of love, the kind of thing you’d tell a significant other while sitting on the porch on a summer day. Rather than leaving the soft breeze blowing the wind chime to your imagination, Dubs adds it to the track.
As great as his interpretations are, Dubs and songwriting partner/trumpet player Rebecca Macomber have proven themselves fantastic songwriters in their own right. The Words’ leadoff track, “We Ain’t Gonna Die” showcases Dubs’ vocals at their best, as the electronic background builds steadily behind him. “The Worlds” is a They Might Be Giants-meets-Wall of Voodoo piece of organized chaos, with Dubs and Zaehring trading vocals and Macomber’s trumpet tying it all together. “Jameson’s Journey” feels straight from the 70’s, as Zaehring’s soaring vocals intertwine with Dubs asking “do you feel like you’ve been here before?”
It’s hard to find accurate comparisons for an album like The Words. The unique combination of Dubs’ voice and electronic experimentation has an otherworldly quality that’s a pleasure to listen to, and grows better on repeated listens. With the weather getting warmer, it’s a good time to open the windows, let in the fresh air, and bask in The Words.