For Algernon - A look back at the M. Moncrieff album
(EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m so excited about the brand new for algernon album, I thought I’d take a look back at the previous album from the band’s mastermind, Jason Wells. Monsieur Moncrieff - Near the Lake, Just After Dark - was released in September 2014. This is my review.)
If you’re an avid music fan, you may know that the Cincinnati area has had a firm finger in the piano lid of rock and roll history for a long time. If you’re kind of obsessed with indie music in particular, you’ll probably name-drop the phenomenal Heartless Bastards or the fucking awful Afghan Whigs. Maybe you’re obsessed. Perhaps you own a Wussy t-shirt or know where Coltrane Motion used to eat chili. In that case, Jason Wells is probably your hero.
Believe it or not, this is the least douchey photo I could find on Jason’s Facebook page.
I met Wells ages ago. We were at an open mic, and he was pacing back and forth in a hall perpendicular to the bar, an electric guitar hanging on his back. He was a tortured soul, looking (oh-wee-oh) just like Buddy Holly. I don’t recall what broke the ice, but I taught him how to play “About A Girl” by Nirvana that night, and it wasn’t long after that that we started a band called “The Drunken Monkeys” with Rich Lewis, later of The Lewis Brothers. This was 2001. A Jason Wells solo record, called Public Diary, came along shortly after, and a parade of excellent, self-produced/released albums under the name For Algernon marched on through the years afterwards.
This album is about an escaped prisoner with a hook for a hand.
Calling For Algernon a “band” is a loose descriptor. See, the members have consisted of Wells and whoever else was able, willing, patient, and available within Wells’ notoriously ever-changing parameters. There have been a diverse troupe of talented players involved in the decade-plus existence of the group, but the thing to know here is that it was always Wells’ show, and Wells’ show was mostly an insular, obsessively crafted, recorded one. “Public Diary” was the most apt of names for his first record. All of the assemblies of recordings to come have been public diaries as well, with each being a little better than the last. The hook was always Wells’ impeccable pop craft, his ability to casually shake off a melody that lodged itself in the crevice where your brain meets your heart, where we take comfort in the companionship of shared human suffering. It was only relatively recently that Wells seemed to have settled on, more or less, a live band line up. Like many past incarnations, they were a dynamic emotional force. Unlike the past line-ups, this one was pretty tight.
Every one of these guys has a third nipple.
Then Wells crashed his car. Again. Then he moved. Again (this time to “the country”). The charismatic Mr. Wells found himself at the elbow of his personal trajectory.
Enter M. Moncrieff, Wells’ first album under this alternative moniker. “Near the Lake, Just After Dark,” continues the tradition established with the For Algernon code name. The songs are self-recorded, lo-fi ditties that sit you on the floor next to Wells’ production desk while he pours his heart out to you with a cheap but drinkable bottle of scotch. The striking difference here; the element that sets it apart from his previous work, is the contentment it expresses. My favorite track is the opener, “An Ounce Of Honey,” an ode to coming home to the one you love and forming lasting, resentment free bonds.
This is not the sad bastard output of a youthful artist. “Near the Lake” finds Wells settling into himself as a confident adult, somewhat at ease, with the dramatic hinge of the album being the struggle to accept the transformation. The track “Hard Heart,” easily the album’s most accessible and catchy tune, is a great example of this evolution. The titular hard heart of this song has hurt our narrator, but instead of pacing the dark halls of his broken heart, Wells stands proud to say that he’s had enough of her shit. A similar sentiment is given in the scathing admonishment called “Board Games,” where some poor fool is eviscerated in a fashion that’d make Bob Dylan proud.This newfound confidence could, perhaps, be a fitting enough reason to change one’s name.
It’s difficult for me to place M. Moncrieff musically. I’ve been listening to For Algernon for so long that it is it’s own beast to me. Upon the first listen, it sounds like a For Algernon album. Cool, but whatever, man. Then I listen again… And again… You may site Elliot Smith as an influence, as folks often might, if you’d please. Maybe Grandaddy. I would, however, put this record in the hall of heroes with the Velvet Underground circa Loaded, early Belle and Sebastian, and Lou Barlow with dry eyes. It doesn’t sound like those bands exactly, but they’d all get along fine at the dinner party as long as that scotch was drinkable enough.
The production value is best described as homemade. Homemade with a weary passion, a trait that really stands out the most in the sleepy vocals of “4 Seasons,” one of those tracks that exists like a contented sigh from an alright dude with a less than alright half-full bottle of…
…Well, the scotch is probably gone by now, but I bet there’s some Jameson around here somewhere. There’s a pot of grandpa’s chili on the stove too. Help yourself. Cheers. Here’s to history.