Golden Rules the Thumb is the self-titled debut from Portland songwriter/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyler Jackson’s new project, a seven-piece collective that includes fellow and former Foam Castles/Endless Jags bandmates Shannon Allen (bass, keys) Peet Chamberlain (bass), and Jonas Eule (drums, percussion, harmonium). Along with vocalist Tess Van Horn, former Fur/Rattlesnakes/Gully bassist Greg Bazinet, and Portland rock elder statesman Flash Allen (Shannon's dad, on keys), the group have made an album about memories and time with a shocking twist — you might think it’s about them, but it’s actually about you. It’s about all of us! M. Night Shyamalan is in some dark corner seething with jealousy right now.
GRTT’s jangle-pop meets psychedelic folk-rock is really interesting to me because it tweaks a lot of my ‘80s and ‘90s college rock strings while giving me a better production experience. I hear so much of that Athens, Georgia-style grit and chaos on this record (think REM’s 1983 debut Murmur), but it’s a smooth, intentionally crafted and produced collection of songs, too (think Tame Impala’s 2010 release InnerSpeaker).
In 2015 when Foam Castles released Flotilla, I reviewed it for the rag I was working for at the time, and I had a hard time with it because all of the great ideas on Flotilla seemed unfinished. On GRTT, Jackson has matured into a songwriter of depth who can finish a narrative while still taking risks. It is Snickers bar-levels of satisfying to revisit Jackson’s music and experience his next level. This is what we live for, us music lovers.
GRRT opens with “Memorial Highway,” an oblique approach to letting us know that something has died or moved on, that something has ceased to be. The song is pretty bleak lyrically with its refrain of “We live on a memorial highway,” a single line so densely packed with possible meanings that is makes up for the sparse vocals. Speaking of vocals, Tess Van Horn shows up here with her haunting stacked harmonies singing alongside Jackson, which she’ll continue to do throughout the album, and while I refuse to call it groundbreaking — it’s not — it is very beautiful, a welcome sound, and we feel a sense of balance.
The album meanders on to “My Strings,” a little hummingbird of a song that reminds us that it's always hard to let go. “Every night from downtown I hear the cursed sounds of my strings,” Jackson sings. Clever, you also play guitar — we’re with you, Tyler! I love these perfect little one-liners. There must be so many memories wrapped into the minutiae of our detailed individual lives. Later, “Society Ball” in what could potentially be a deliberate skewering of the upper crust through song structure, takes on a more straightforward rock format. It’s probably also the angriest song on the album, and it names the antagonist of the album for the first time: Charlotte. CHARLOTTE! (*Shakes fist*). We’re clearly angry at Charlotte, though if this is the apex of unchecked animosity for Jackson, he must be a real teddy bear.
It’s the next song, “Wilson Pond,” where we hear Jackson figure out how to make a singular idea feel complete. Three short verses and no chorus about mistakes and music — and a sly reference to having burned down a castle — could end up a hanging chad of introspection. It’s the instrumentation here that gives the song its payoff, with a repetitive and triumphant feeling guitar riff that seems to finish the thought for us. Because sometimes our minds just can’t complete what our bodies can, and in life we have no choice but to let the two come to grips with things as a team.
I suppose that’s what I mean when I say that Golden Rules the Thumb is about all of us. The lyrics are shoegaze-y and introverted enough to feel personal, but not so personal that what comes out of the speakers is whiny. The music itself is so blissful and fuzzy and endearingly cheerful that I get none of that “woe is me”-style selfishness from this, just a parsing and an acceptance — something we've all felt, and all have to grow up and embrace at some point. While GRTT may be a logistically problematic collective (it’s difficult to maintain longevity in the face of multiple albums and tours with seven people), I am hoping we hear more from this particularly cognizant and down-to-earth team of creators.
Golden Rules the Thumb | album release show with Jeff Beam + Buffalo Voice + FCC | Sep 1 | Sat 7 pm | The Apohadion Theater, 107 Hanover St, Portland | https://goldenrulesthethumb.bandcamp.com