Sunday, August 24, 2014

Local Limelight: Jay Mickens

Written by: Jimmy McQuade

Date: August 24th, 2014

Take one part early John Mayer, one part Jack Johnson and about two parts Dave Matthews, mix them together until the lumps disappear, and you’ll end up with Jay Mickens, a independent singer-songwriter hailing from Prospect Park, NJ who can no doubt hold ground against even the giants of the so-called “Adult Contemporary” genre. But Jay Mickens is no one-trick pony, not by any stretch of the imagination. He can move seamlessly from the elegant chord progressions, the lush instrumentation and gentle melodies of the “Adult Contemporary” camp to the turned-up, distorted blues-rock that would keep The Black Keys on their toes; a musical feat of the highest order. Where a lesser musician would botch such genre-jumping and end up with an ungainly hodgepodge of various songs and styles, Mickens is light on his feet, deftly leaping from one sonic realm to another (and another) with a gracefulness and precision that almost makes you want to cheer aloud to yourself as though you were watching Olympic pole-vaulting.

On his latest release, “Inner Demons with External Means” (2014), which you could listen to on Spotify or buy on iTunes, Jay Mickens showcases this uncommon talent of his and then some. The opening track, “Always,” kicks off with an acoustic guitar chopping its way through your eardrums and bouncing around your head, against which a sedating electric guitar delicately dresses the rhythm section with tasteful and well-placed embellishments as Mickens sings, “You’re not the first but will be the last/You always had, girl, so much class/And I knew what to do.” The power of Mickens’ delivery does not come from any type of fervor but understatement. The distance and emotional reserve that Mickens sustains in his vocals has the almost paradoxical effect of allowing the impressions and ideas of the lyrics to stand on their own. So when the verses give way to the chorus and Mickens sings, or almost proclaims that “We all…want to be wanted/We all…feel it’s true,” he doesn’t need melodrama or vocal pyrotechnics to make the line feel true.

But then a few tracks into “Inner Demons with External Means” Jay Mickens throws a real curve-ball with the song “Movin’ on My Mind,” a nod conscious or not to Robert Johnson’s recording of “Rambling on My Mind,” probably the quintessential blues about breaking off ones shackles, literal or figurative, hitting the road and getting the hell out of Dodge. The song begins with the ever pleasant combination of finger picking and slide, the bass notes droning underneath Mickens’ blues licks that fire from the left and right. But what really tops off this song is how the intro sounds as though it was recorded in the same studio as Robert Johnson, with the same equipment. And just when you feel fully immersed in early 20th century America, the far-off, mystic quality of the recording moves into a crunchy and very robust version of the same blues. “I’ve got movin’ baby, movin’ is on my mind…” sings Mickens, not without the same reserve as “Always;” “You know when I’m leaving, girl, you won’t be far behind…” But this is merely a taste of the many virtues of Jay Mickens’ new album, if you want to know what else he has to offer, give it a listen yourself.

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