By Emily Votaw
It’s hard to decipher whatever intention Jacob Sigman had throughout the process of writing and recording his five-track “Virginia EP,” released in December. Did he want to write a couple of orchestral pop songs? Is this the kind of music that having Of Monsters and Men on the radio has inevitably led to? Is Sigman a singer/songwriter? Why the indie imagery on his albums and throughout his social media presence when he sounds so imperfectly bubblegum? Many baroque pop outfits have albums that seem full of potential upon first listen, and then slowly but surely latch their gooey, goofy saccharin selves onto somewhere deep in your subconscious. But Sigman doesn’t manage to quite pull of the feat.
Initially “Virginia EP” is full of “potential riffs,” stuff that you know could get stuck in your head, with appropriate listening. But then it doesn’t. Then the little things, like the odd track ordering and overall feeling of pseudo-pop that you get from the short recording start to outweigh the potential greatness you think you might hear hiding in Sigman’s music. Sometimes embarrassing production is excusable, but here it’s just cringe-inducing, as it is on “Silas,” the EP’s third track and one that has a brief opening instrumentation that is vaguely reminiscent of “Once in a Lifetime.”
Although the comparison to the Talking Heads is certainly a positive one, it’s just plain difficult to get past the pastel production that taints the entirety of the album. The songs just sound like they are watered-down versions of adventurous pop tunes, ones that bravely and admirably incorporate a wealth of interesting and complex instrumentation. Throughout the album Sigman brings in several atypical pop instruments: violin, cello, horns, clarinet. Even though that might be enough to save certain terrible faux freak folk, it does not completely atone for the rest of the album’s sins.
“Your Father” begins with tinkling, fading acoustic guitar after a sampled bit of emergency vehicle siren, diving directly into Sigman’s rapid vocals, convoluted and obviously something a Nick Drake fan would come up with. Sometimes there is a tenderness about Sigman’s voice and the overall lush but slightly sickly atmosphere created throughout the album. “Your Father” may not be the highlight of the album, but it is poppy, and Sigman does sound sincere. And that doesn’t count for much, but it does count for something.
If there is anything negative that the wide embrace of Arcade Fire has led to, and there isn’t much legitimate criticism of Arcade Fire as they are one of the inarguable “greats” of the past decade or so, it’s the art of the forced, fake buildup and climax. Win Butler and Régine Chassagne pull off a completely practiced buildup and climax with ease, but this is something that most acts just can’t really achieve. “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” is a rare creature and one that relies on skill and tenacity that is just as anomalous as Butler’s monstrous height.
Such a feat Sigman attempts to pull off on the album’s opener, “Street Tower Ladies.” The song is obviously one of the most important involved in creating the centerpiece of the album, a story about a girl named Virginia. The lyrics border on a level of surreal that seems somewhat Beatles-esque, at least in the sense that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” obviously has some pretty trippy lyrics. Sigman’s line about “street tower ladies in opera houses” is playful, but the overdone production lessens the charm considerably.
“Barcelona Sunrise” is just downright embarrassing, with too many “oh ohs” that are too hard to justify and even harder to stomach. Like many of the tracks on the EP, the tune starts with the gentle picking of acoustic guitar and painfully bulks up into something even less desirable by the time the cymbals start crashing with the addition of another instrument.
Sigman has some good points, some interesting ones, and many of those have to do with the use of horns, but unfortunately he fits into the sappy indie pop scene more than he fits into the mold of a legitimate songwriter. Maybe “oh ohs” are fun to sing with a bunch of semi-drunk college kids, but they don’t make for a good oddball folk pop song. Sigman needs more bite, and if he could just come off as a little less adorable, he might really have something interesting going on.