Jimmy Gnecco | The Heart (Bright Antenna/IGL)

Gnecco has always embraced his influences, and The Heart has plenty to offer those listeners willing to be open-minded about Gnecco’s talents and join with him in celebrating the past.

 

Imagine a world where the music-buying public has a very short memory, forgetting antecedent artists every half-decade. In this world, new artists need only embrace an aesthetic developed by their musical forebears, use it to channel their own talent and enjoy the success and acclaim. That would be a perfect world for Jimmy Gnecco. Oddly enough, although that world is a reality for some artists—I’m sure that, on some level, Madonna, Marilyn Manson and Pink feel like Lady Gaga owes them royalty checks—it is merely a distant wish for others. Jimmy Gnecco falls into the latter category, artists who aren’t given the benefit of the doubt.

 I remain puzzled and confounded. Steve Lillywhite, the man responsible for mixing The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, produced Gnecco’s first album. Ethan Johns, famed producer of Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, produced Gnecco’s second album. To top it off, the legendary Rick Rubin produced Gnecco’s third album. Now, I ask you, how can a musician talented enough to attract the best producers in the industry not get a second glance in the 21st century marketplace?

 I am not unbiased. I have been a frustrated fan since Ours, the band Gnecco fronts, released their first album, Distorted Lullabies, in 2001. The album’s debut single “Sometimes” landed in the MTV2 rotation, but then the proverbial wheels fell off the band’s publicity efforts. It’s a crying shame, because their music only got better, their talent more evident. Ours’ second album, Precious, remained under the radar despite receiving heaps of praise from reviewers. Gnecco then spent six full years writing and touring, both solo and with Ours, before the band got out of their original DreamWorks Records contract and were free to release their third album, Mercy, with Columbia Records. During the pre-release tour in 2007, Gnecco quipped that “We’ll have written another album by the time this one comes out.” 

 Gnecco’s solo debut, The Heart, marks his welcome return to recording. Gnecco has long been subject to simultaneously flattering and damning comparisons to other, better-known artists. But he has always embraced his influences, and The Heart has plenty to offer those listeners willing to be open-minded about Gnecco’s talents and join with him in celebrating the past. As for those biased against Gnecco because of his image or the echoes of other artists in his voice, I encourage them to learn about the man. The grief and triumphs he has experienced—becoming a father, having a lover commit suicide, losing his mother to cancer—have informed his art and mark it as his own.
 
The Heart contains its fair share of heartache and melancholy. Emotional wounds are laid bare, woven into elegant, ethereal arpeggios and bittersweet serenades. The album opens with a succession of these songs—“Rest Your Soul,” “Light on the Grave” and “Mystery.” The latter, a gently strummed, Southern hymn-styled ballad with a slow, waltzing beat, elevates the mood. The pleasant surprise of drums and piano break the tension imposed by listening to little more than guitar and voice at length. This is a key development for the album because the title track “The Heart” follows, and it is indeed the pulse of the record. A Gypsy stomp lifted from the Romani and augmented by a handclap hook takes the intrigue of those modal minor key progressions and makes it feel modern and encouraging. Gnecco’s voice traverses the song’s winding crescendo, highlighting his stellar guitar playing. This is also a great example of Gnecco’s song structures: unhinged, ever changing, folding back into themselves to reach their resolution.
The focused free-for-all presages “Bring You Home,” a song that proclaims his longing to bring a loved one home from the hospital, but which could also be mistaken for a pick-up line. This track is the epitome of pure, focused songcraft. It has backbeat, rhythm and hooks for days, even a little distorted guitar, and it is unlike anything Gnecco has ever released before. “These Are My Hands” follows and manifests itself as equally immediate and direct. The songs churn ahead, transforming The Heart from an emotionally charged drama to a steady throb. “Days” epitomizes this energy with its heavy backbeat, enveloping bass and pulsing piano chords. The vocal rounds and shifting key of the crescendo/coda alter the mood just enough to usher in the full-out uplift of “Gravity.” With each song, Gnecco chips away at his pigeonholed image in noir lighting, enigmatic iconography and darker-shaded attire.
 “Take a Chance” shifts the gears of The Heart, like the cool-down walk after a good run. It maintains the full band arrangement but slows the tempo, shifting to a more imploring mood. The shift continues with “Darling,” a reprise of “Light on the Grave,” and the album begins to have an arc-like quality. Then, when things seem as dark and sparse as can be imagined, “Patiently Waiting” interjects itself. Part dirge, part field song, the macabre strings and thundering, staccato kick drum are draped with Gnecco’s alternating throaty plea and sweet falsetto. “It’s Only Love” follows as its polar opposite, an airy serenade, in and out in a moment, just shy of blissful. The Heart closes with “Talk to Me,” an epic track with multiple guitar figures entering and leaving, building to a monolithic wall of vocals, guitar and piano, a restrained and controlled expression of unyielding desire. There’s a haunting quality to the voices that carry the counter melody, one that makes the silence that follows The Heart’s final moment far emptier in contrast to the silence that hung in the air before it began. A | Willie E. Smith
RIYL: PJ Harvey, Bon Iver, Andrew Bird, Gods and Monsters, Chris Whitley

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