Where Example is mediocre and American Standard just kind of clueless, the debut of North Carolina band Jolene is damnably awful. Hell’s Half Acre, on the same Ardent label that was home to major R.E.M. influence Big Star, takes its title from a Southern idiom less obscure than “losing my religion.” From there, it continues to dumb down the rusticity thing, with a steel guitar the major stylistic addition to the reconstruction-of-Reckoning vibe. R.E.M. has been accused of dealing in nostalgia, but it has never been so pointlessly know-nothing as this record’s “Esseola 181,” which helpfully proclaims, “This town in Blue Ridge, Appalachia, stands forever.”
On Hell’s, you get what main songwriter John Crooke is singing about in three seconds. Put together the title “Birdland,” a reference to a dog, and the Stipean words “ritualized” and “trying to dance where the steps are formal,” and it’s clear the song is about hunting—“Birdland,” get it?—and also that Crooke has nothing whatsoever to say about it.
Elsewhere, Crooke uses the style to put across overwrought, clumsily confessional plaints like “In My House” (there’s a stranger there, doncha know) and “I Read What You Wrote Today.” The latter rounds up further R.E.M. diction-ary entries (“finalize circumstance”) as if Crooke is trying to write lyrics he can imagine seeing excerpted in a Howard Finster cover painting. Hell’s Half Acre is generally obtuse, but it becomes downright offensive when Crooke links his unappealing groan to Athens resident Vic Chesnutt’s “Isadora Duncan.” The self-pity that bleeds through this rendition of the paralyzed Chesnutt’s line “Last night I dreamed I was dancing” is far more unforgivable than the stupidity displayed over the rest of the album. If John Vigliatura was just a kid, Crooke sounds old enough to know better. Unfortunately, that’s the sole convincing thing about Jolene.CP