he Jenny Thing came together on the Berkeley campus of the University of California in 1991 when singer/guitarist Matt Easton met guitarist Shyam Rao. Matt and drummer Mike Phillips had grown up together, and both had been friends with bass player Ehren Becker since junior high. “It took most of freshman year in college before I noticed Shyam had a guitar under his dorm room bed,” Easton recalled. “Turned out he was good, and he knew how to put a demo together. I was a serious pianist and could sing but had little songwriting experience. We were very compatible co-writers and started playing our first handful of songs around dorms and student houses in Berkeley, on acoustic guitars. Once we pulled in Mike and Ehren, we quickly made our way to playing clubs and making an album at Live Oak Studio in Berkeley.”
That first album, Me, was recorded shortly after the band played their first live shows. Its semi-acoustic sound is emotionally raw, with a style balanced between pop and youthful experimentation. It became the best-selling independent album of the year at Berkeley’s Rasputin Records.
The band’s follow up, Closer and Closer to Less, was more polished, drawing on the sounds of The Cure, The Smiths and New Order. The arrangements had been honed by live gigs and captured the band’s onstage energy. According to Easton, “We had national distribution for Closer and Closer, and got quite a bit of college radio play. We toured in a van, up and down California, playing colleges, small clubs and The Roxy and Troubadour in LA. We even made it through one round of Star Search.”
The last album before the group disbanded was 1999’s Nowhere Near You. It showed them transcending their influences to deliver waves of atmospheric guitars, fragmented rhythms and honest emotion.
“We had become a mature band from a production perspective. Knowing it was going to be our last album, we put a lot of heart and soul into it,” Easton notes. “We were only 27, but we began to move on. Shyam moved away for grad school. All of us eventually got jobs and started families, but we stayed in touch.”
Five years ago, everyone in the band was living in Northern California again. Easton and Rao began writing new songs, recording them in Easton’s home studio in Berkeley. “At first, we were just getting in the room and finishing each other’s demos. Sometimes I’d send Shyam a completed song and he’d hack it up and make a completely different production from it, or he’d come over and we’d pass a guitar back and forth. Then we’d call Mike and Ehren in to track parts, sometimes pre-arranged, sometimes more jammy. It was very non-linear. On three or four songs, we all played live together. Most of the time we worked together in pairs, rotating through the sessions in a random fashion.”
The first track they completed, “Lightfield,” is a love song that balances feelings of resignation and yearning. Dark synthesizer chords, Rao’s chiming guitar fills and Easton’s chilling vocal, intensify the song’s emotional impact. The band put it up on social media and got encouraging comments.
“American Canyon,” a song that combines an anti-war stance, while celebrating the psychology of war, eventually became the new album’s title. It’s a synth-heavy track with a dark, popping bass line and ghostly vocals. It describes the desire to cling to love, even in the midst of destruction and chaos. “From that song forward, an intensity in the sound and themes began to build. We realized an album was coming together. We started rewriting completed material, reworking vocal parts and lyrics and pushing everything as far as we could. Through this process, the songs told us they wanted to be an album. Even though we’re still separated by some distance, it became our reunion project.”
The music The Jenny Thing created for American Canyon has a cinematic sweep. Synthesizers, sampled and real drums, and vocal processing were added, and unexpected tempo shifts were made as the songs were rewritten, deconstructed and revamped. And a storyline gradually emerged, enhancing the direction the project was taking.
“The songs are not expository, but there is a thread,” Easton said. “Each track describes the characters’ emotional reactions at pivotal points in a story where they struggle with faith and doubt, urgency and resignation, love, hate and mortality.”
The album opens with the pop bliss of “Paper Angel.” A ’90s Britpop backbeat, rippling guitar hook, ghostly synth fills and wistful vocal harmonies describe the longing for a perfect relationship, or maybe the despondent dreams of lost love. The track ends with Easton’s shimmering vocals slowly fading into a warm, nostalgic mood. Rao’s sparse, delicate guitar intro to “All in My Head” recalls the twanging of a psychedelic sitar. Easton’s pleading vocals are supported by ominous, measured synthesizer tones, before the band comes in on a galloping beat that slowly mutates into a funky, mid-tempo groove. “The song balances a machine-gun-like rant with a blissed-out smooth side,” Easton said. “It gives you the feeling that something could go wrong at any moment. It’s a prayer for a feeling of safety that may never come.”
“Monsters of Mercy” hurtles out of the speakers with a brisk, almost out of control arrangement. Washes of cosmic, undulating synthesizers, a dynamic bass line, icy cymbal splashes and overlapping, processed vocals complement the track’s otherworldly aura. A bright, compressed guitar solo leads into the song’s pensive conclusion. Time compressed vocals drift through the mix, like a wraith searching for salvation. Easton says, “The lyrics move from a condemnation of others, to a condemnation of self, and finally into a reverie of redemption. But there’s a little wink, questioning whether or not the redemption works.
“I think this moment—this record and our rejuvenation—isn’t so much a turning point; it’s like a rededication point. We want to keep making urgent and emotional stuff and riding the creative wave. Working in my home studio we found that, if we pour ourselves into the writing and the actual moments of performance, we can make almost anything sonically we care to make.”