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Joywave's 'Possession,' found and lost again

Mar 18, 2020
Originally published on March 18, 2020 6:58 am

Coronavirus' vast, leathery bat wings are slowly encircling the planet, casting a shadow across the globe, choking out light, our culture. Go home, draw the curtains closed, turn on the television, do not answer calls from friends inviting you to dinner or a movie.

The moment calls for a new cautionary label. It was duck and cover, for those who survived the Cold War. Shelter in place, for those who heard shots from a lone gunman in the next classroom. Now, social distancing.

Bars and restaurants are closing, festivals are being canceled or postponed, concert tours are imploding. Even museums are seen as a danger, their doors locked. The negative economic impact is huge, the hole in our souls is equally large.

So we sit in our darkened homes and listen to "Possession," released Friday, the third full-length release by Rochester's Joywave: singer and main songwriter Daniel Armbruster, guitarist Joseph Morinelli, keyboardist Benjamin Bailey and drummer Paul Brenner.

Joywave's tour in support of "Possession" was to have opened Tuesday in Tampa, with shows following in three more Florida cities. But they're now victims of coronavirus restrictions. The tour resumes, perhaps, April 18 at Buffalo's Town Ballroom and hits all of the big markets. Including Rochester, of course, with that leg of the tour closing June 22 at Anthology.

Joywave was not thinking of social distancing as it was writing and recording "Possession" in a studio barn outside of Rochester. And released is a subjective term in the music industry these days, since we've already heard nearly half of the album already, as singles flung like confetti to the internet.

But now, assembled in one place, the songs dart around a shared theme. Maybe that's too strong a statement, as "Possession" is not a concept album, but there is a common tone. Dark times.

Today's indie rock, especially that geared for music clubs and concert tours, is a shiny, throbbing ball that has to be broken open to see what's inside. What's revealed is sometimes disappointing. There is nothing there. Or maybe, nothing for you.

Joywave and "Possession" do not disappoint. The production is lush and ambitious. And there is much beneath the racing riffs of "Half Your Age," the dance-floor throb of "Obsession," the creepy synth of "F.E.A.R.," the spacey effects of "Blastoffff," and the tribal, snarky and ominous "Who Owns Who?"

Joywave can be self-mocking and satiric. That side is balanced by introspection and fragility. And it's a daring move to open "Possession" with the most fragile, and the most gorgeous, song on the album, the piano ballad "Like a Kennedy."

Accompanying "Like a Kennedy" and its release as a single was a startling video, re-creating the John F. Kennedy assassination over and over and over. With each version of the crime, deliberately bloodless, covered up by people wearing what looks like hazmat suits. This is the endless cycle of violence in this country, and poses a disturbing thought at the end: What if it had been Jackie Kennedy who was shot that day?

"Like a Kennedy" voices many concerns:

Are they gonna bomb us all?

I don't know

Do you think they'll build the wall?

I don't know

Do you think they'll take it all?

I don't know

I just want to be

Fat and old and happy

That is immediately upended by the confident "Coming Apart," a cynical anthem of "You're amazing and beautiful, but it's an age made for the stupid and dumb, we've got parents regretting their young, a malaise that could block out the sun." On the toy-like, elastic groove of "Funny Thing About Opinions," we hear a self-satisfied chorus of, "There's nobody else out here that I wanna know."

Self-doubt creeps in. "Am I a letdown? Am I a bore now?" Joywave asks on the title track. With "Half Your Age," Armbruster comforts anyone who feels they've fallen short of their dreams. "Giving up is not a crime, moving on when it's time."

Joywave overlooks no angle. The vinyl and CD is presented as a gold disc, reminiscent of the Golden Record that accompanied the Voyager 1 and 2 unmanned spacecraft in 1977. Those discs contained sounds from Earth, curated by the astronomer Carl Sagan, sounds sampled by "Possession." Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, two travelers on a journey from which they would never return.

The album's relationships are conducted from a distance, sometimes a vast one. "I'm in town for an hour now, can you meet to talk about parallel space and time," Armbruster sings on "Blastoffff." On "No Shoulder," he laments, "Waiting for the one I cannot live without, to replace the one I thought I could not live without."

The album, Armbruster says, is about control. With "Possession," all relationships are tenuous. It's as much about possessing something as it is about losing possession of it.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.

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