By now, we’ve heard several iterations of Warsaw, Indiana’s reigning basement indie king: the yearning Rundgren-esque pop from Goodbyewave; the spiky low-and mid-fi energy of Sunnydaymassacre; the more considered and self-contained songwriter presence of the first J. Hubner title, 2010’s Life in Distortion. The guy is a veritable pop factory, and his primary source of fuel appears to be vinyl (of the 33-1/3 variety). So, to call the second J. Hubner release, Midwest Son, a definitive album may be somewhat premature. I mean, he’ll probably have another full-length in the can before I finish this review.
Two things stick out immediately upon dropping the virtual needle onto the figurative wax. First, Hubner has never sounded better. His blend of vintage and modern-indie sonics is adventurous and interesting, but the cool sounds never supersede the songs themselves. No wankery here. The second eye opener is the sheer range he exhibits on Midwest Son. From the brash rocker “I Am the Kaiser” to the subdued, Eels-by-way-of-Beatles-evoking “Lost at Sea,” the stylistic shifts are impressive - but never forced. Right on the heels of “Lost at Sea” comes another left turn, the 80s-evoking “The Touch,” with its groovy bass and echo-laden vocals.
Though part of Hubner’s musical charm has always been his ability to conjure different eras and recognizable vibes, the guy has always sounded himself and nothing less. Play “spot the influence” all you want, but you won’t hear an artist aping other artists here. Want to mainline prime power pop (complete with priceless “aah” background vocals)? Listen to “The Book Wrote You.” Or, check out “Beard of Bees,” with its outward calm disrupted by a dizzy funhouse middle eight. Elsewhere, chiming guitars and a vintage piano highlight the stately “The New Americans.”
I won’t dig too deep into Hubner’s motivations and lyrical themes, but suffice it to say that the album’s title is reflected, prism-like, throughout its songs. It’s a portrait of an artist who is from but not necessarily of his environment. Hubner refuses to become detached, and the result is a batch of songs with warmth and humanity flowing through them. Definitely a Midwestern trait, and one to be proud of.
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