Album review – Jesse Stockton & Dream Machine
By Brian Tucker
Jesse Stockton & Dream Machine will have a CD release show this Saturday night at The Palm Room on Wrightsville Beach. Playing locally for years, both as solo artist or within a group (Moonlight Co.), Stockton and his band will perform from their new album No Hope for Humanity.
Recently Carlos Santana inadvertently brought up the subject of different types of singers following the Grammy Awards. Aside from the controversy he elicited, the celebrated guitarist spotlighted a divide between pop music and singer-songwriters. To make that distinction is like saying fast food is different from restaurant food. Eat what you want, but one will resonate longer.
There is a difference, and a person’s choice is theirs alone. I wouldn’t take that from someone. Dig on what you enjoy, it’s a short life. I just prefer to not be overburdened with pop singers, unable to escape hearing Katy Perry’s “Roar.” But pop singers are different from other singers – some are great, some assisted by technology. I wouldn’t want a world without Pink, Taylor Swift and Arianna Grande just as much I wouldn’t want a world without Alynda Segarra, (Hurray for the Riff Raff), Jenn Wasner, (Wye Oak), Shareese Ballard (Res), or Sarah Bettens (K’s Choice). I think the difference between them is substance and the earnestness coming through vocally.
The same applies for Jesse Stockton, one of the finest singers (and songwriters) in the area you may not be familiar with. His voice, his delivery, is unique. With great talent in the area (Emma Nelson, Randy McQuay, Ben Mabry, Sean Gerard, to name a few) I’d put him high on any list. He’s got a voice it’s easy to assume could reach farther than Wilmington. Stockton could sing the alphabet song and it would sound both sincere and elegant, like Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon) meets James Taylor. The result is something instinctively guttural and personal – and mysterious (see “Social Remodification”). There’s no mistaking the ache and broken beauty in his vocals, be it personal, observational, or political.
On the new album Stockton remains at center, his high notes or restrained ones (see “Frida Kahlo”) existing in a band that consistently offers colorful, exploratory music with electronic flourishes, psychedelic textures, thumping bass lines or spacey guitar notes. Winston Mitchell’s plaintive guitar playing on “Frida Kahlo” and the raw slide guitar on “Can You Hear” illustrates the variety of textures the musician brings. But Stockton has what great singers have – emotional heft. He sounds like people feel, conveying vocally what you and I are carrying silently inside in our best and dire times.
The album is a hazy, sun-breaking-the-clouds mix of material that can be somber, uplifting, and even a catchy, radio-ready song in “Shake It Off (no, it’s not a cover). While No Hope for Humanity is a bleak album title, it shouldn’t dissuade. Playing with Dream Machine, the band has crafted an album’s worth of material born from depth and experience. Toiled over for some time (Stockton was planning for a release last year but reconvened for some songs) the material bear the miasma of scarred lives, strained living, timely themes, and personal failures.
Sonically it can be experimental, like the hypnotic and layered “Mechanically Separated Meat Parts” and fraught thematically on “Can You Hear” and “The Importance of Taxes.” Against a shuffling rhythm and jarring guitar jabs Stockton sings humbly and poignantly throughout the song – “I’ve seen the good and bad in man,” I keep up running but I can’t keep up with this speed,” “They’re circling like sharks and all they want to do is feed,” and “If we had all the money how much would we be worth?”
Dotted with colorful lyrics, songs are delivered by a storyteller and confessor at heart, most commercial with “Shake it Off.” It begs the question of Stockton leading a raucous rock and roll band full time. “All I Can Be Is Me” is superb, reflecting on getting older, of staring down who you are and being okay with its difficulties. Singing “I wish you know how much I loved you,” it cuts deeps, the mystery of the pain existing behind the delivery. As if torn from the pages of Lowell George or Gram Parsons, Stockton’s “All the Rest” is an album highlight, a somber, slow burning number. He sings of cocaine, whiskey and cigarettes, things to lean on and stare at while wishing someone you love could be there. He sings of “taking the road I know best” and helps make it one heartbreaker of a song.
The album advances the strengths of the mostly singer-songwriter driven material of Stockton’s full-length debut Thank You Very Kindly in 2013. No Hope for Humanity is two halves combined – enough material to suggest two albums were mixed together. On it Stockton and the band give us lush folky, singer-songwriter material mixed with heady, layered songs injected with dreamy qualities – like “Pony Boy” in which Stockton sings of cowboys riding the range, star sailors without destinations, and wondering if he’ll ever turn out good, even if for a day.
“Pony Boy” could be a narrator of these thirteen songs, the longing and strife beneath the surface. This is an album someone doesn’t write in a hurry. Its themes and lyrical ideas are grinded out from hardship and introspection. Stockton is soul searching and in turn sharing what he finds with listeners. It doesn’t feel like soul-laid-bare art. It feels like cautionary tale, like confession. That’s the grit of a singer-songwriter, not a pop singer, and what gives great music its long shelf life for others to discover.
Read my article on Stockton from 2014 here.
The group is Jesse Stockton (Vocals/Guitar), Jarrett Pelzel (Bass/Percussion), Winston Mitchell (Lead Guitar), Sean Mcclain (Drums), and Tyler Simmons (Keys).