Men I Trust’s “Oncle Jazz” is Raw, Real and Inventive
Double albums — albums that are too long, basically — annoy me. They annoy me because there’s always a moment in the album — usually somewhere after the halfway point, after it’s run through all the gems and left only filler — where you find yourself asking, “Is this really still going on?” Yes, it is, and there’s half an hour more. I don’t finish double albums too often.
So, all things considered, I probably should have been intensely annoyed by Men I Trust’s recent album “Oncle Jazz” and its 24 (that’s two dozen!) tracks, especially from a band that’s known for easy listening. And initially, I was. But here I am, writing this review as I finish listening to the album for the sixth or seventh time, not yet exhausted by its length. It’s a minor miracle of sorts.
If you happen to be intrigued enough to see if listening to this album might spark your own minor miracle, you might open up Spotify with the intention of listening to it for a minute or two to see if it’s for you. And then, if you’re like me, you might pause the album 10 seconds in just to make sure you didn’t accidentally put on some new-age adult contemporary radio station with music that’s too sophisticated for your youthful ears to comprehend. You’ll be surprised to find out that you didn’t.
No, it’s quite a bit better than that. Part of what makes “Oncle Jazz” such a subtly impressive piece is the unique and independent sonic world it crafts. The lead vocalist, Emma Proulx, makes this abundantly clear. “You’re listening to Radio ‘Men I Trust,’” she whispers in one of the album’s two interludes. And it really does feel like you’re listening to the band’s privately curated radio station, like the group is picking out songs specifically to fit the mood — your mood — as the different tracks flow and blend into one another, from beginning to end to beginning again.
Of course, the intimacy and fluidity that characterizes the album doesn’t come into being in a vacuum. For that, we can thank Proulx and her two bandmates, Jessy Caron and Dragos Chiriac, for their emphasis on an organic production style with a richly diverse array of tools and techniques. You’ll hear the traditional guitar figurations of indie folk, the heavy distortion of psychedelia, the crooning vocals and glide guitar of dream pop, the syncopations and dissonant chord structures of jazz, the bass-led rhythms of funk — all of them and more mix in some combination on each song. The result is our continued immersion in a world that Men I Trust has created for us, a world in which we can fall and lose ourselves.
But “Oncle Jazz” doesn’t fall into the trap that similar “mood” albums fall into. While it still creates an expansive and free-flowing soundscape, the tracks never lose their individual distinctiveness, acting as distant landmarks in the same, familiar world. You might hear songs like “Norton Commander” and its searching, hazy quality, and then immediately move to the light playfulness of “Air” or the bass-heavy groove of “Slap Pie.” It’s a colorful palette that Men I Trust uses to craft an equally colorful tableau, with enough residual paints left for you to create your own secondary, personal picture.
Perhaps that’s the most inventive dimension of this album: it invites you to interact and interpret it directly, to make it your own. And that goes beyond just using the palette the band provides to emphasize your own focuses, cares and anxieties. As is typical with dream-pop-adjacent bands, the lyrics always leave enough space for us to project our own interpretations onto them, yet specific enough to guide us in some general direction — it’s a perfect balance, in some sense.
When Proulx tells us about how “he” asks “her,” “Babe, you’re leaving again?” in the album highlight “Pines,” we only know what “he” knows and feels about “her:” that she’s “running late” and “running away.” And like him, we’re invited to fill in the blanks, to speculate and perhaps even act. Perhaps we might interpret it to be as mundane as the tale of someone going to work.
In any case, we have 24 tracks to interpret and reinterpret again and again, both in the songs’ aura and in their lyrics. It becomes a vast sandbox for us to build a home. Maybe that’s why the album doesn’t dull, even after seven listens.
It’s fitting, the weight Men I Trust puts on allowing listeners to build their own experience, because the band itself is a prime example of the DIY ethic in modern music: a group that completely eschews labels and management but has nonetheless grown a global following with over a million monthly listeners on Spotify in the five years it’s been together.
Men I Trust is, by its design, focused on an individuality of spirit and of musicianship that’s quite rare in the broader landscape of media. It’s obvious that its insistence on independence and personalization extends to the music the band produces, too.
That doesn’t mean that the artists’ stories don’t shine through in their music, however. Everything they write is grounded in a way that feels as if it could only be rooted in their real, raw experiences. It’s difficult to imagine that “Pierre” wasn’t centered around some real-life figure, or that the imagery and specificity of “Seven” wasn’t rooted in the band members’ own feelings of longing. Because, even though we’re given such autonomy in understanding this album, it’s still the lessons and experiences that the band wishes to impart that guide us.
The songs are most vivid when the two visions, of both band and audience, align. You might be driving to Bradley, ready to fly out to some metropolis to start work for the summer. Maybe, as you drive past Springfield and into Connecticut, you put on “Oncle Jazz.” You’ll continue driving and driving, driving until Proulx’s gentle warble breaks into the hook for “Tailwhip”: “You’ll be alright / Stay here some time / This country dog won’t die in the city.” No, you won’t. And maybe, as you fly out of Windsor Locks and to whatever destination you’re headed for, you will think about those lyrics. And for a band like Men I Trust, that’s all you need.