Jack o’ the Clock

Jack o’ the ClockHow Are We Doing and Who Will Tell Us? (self-released, 2010)

When a Bay Area band gets an endorsement from Fred Frith, it means something. There’s a high chance Frith saw them live and/or taught them as students at Mills. He’s got an informed opinion.

Like Frith’s band, Cosa Brava, Jack o’ the Clock could be called artsy pop or song-oriented prog: airy melody lines, complex rhythms. It’s the kind of album that would have a violin on it (Emily Packard) and a bassoon (played by Kate McLoughlin, and the bassoon even gets funky on “Last of the Blue Bloods,” one of my favorite tracks here). The melodies are catchy, the composing tickles my prog ear, and the musicianship is solid.

On the prog scale, this is folky, often easygoing stuff. I don’t mean Canterbury/Ren-Faire stuff (although you get a dose of that with the gentle acoustic-guitar picking of “Shrinking.”) I mean that there’s a banjo here and there, and lots of acoustic guitar. The vocals and the violin and bassoon trace melodies of the open air, sunlight through a thick forest of tree branches.

There’s even an outright jam-band feel on “Back to the Swamp,” which travels at an easygoing rock pace to produce the catchiest song on the album.

For prog sticklers, there’s the 10-minute suite, “First of the Year,” which has some nicely twisty acoustic guitar lines followed later by some intense electric guitar and bassoon. The song pulls a lot from Jack o’ the Clock’s pack: the sweetness of violin, the percolating sounds of the bassoon and electric bass, a wide variety of musical themes, and some outright nice melodies (instrumental and sung).

Principal songwriter Damon Waitkus gets some nice lyrical moments in. On “Schlitzie, Last of the Aztecs, Lodges an Objection in the Order of Things,” there’s set of lines, sung in lovely harmony with McLoughlin, that I really love: “‘1 2 3 4 5 6 7,’ you said / You even gave us 9 and 10 / But leave your filthy eights at the door.” That track also has some nicely bubbling electric bass from Jason Hoopes.

Another one that sticks with me: “The flag says the purpose of this life is to borrow your ass out of debtors’ prison,” Waitkus sings on “Looking In,” a pretty and somber piano/voice interlude.

You’ll probably know right away whether How Are We Doing is for you. I was hooked from the opening, where percussionist Jordan Glenn starts knocking out a marimba rhythms, small and unassuming and full of promise, with tension built by some electronic tweakings by The Norman Conquest.

This is terrific music — likeable, substantial, and deserving of an audience. You can be do your part on June 30 — Jack o’ the Clock will be playing the Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco that day.

After that, they’ll share a bill with Cosa Brava (something I didn’t know when I started writing this entry): Sunday, Aug. 14 at the Great American Music Hall.