An alumnus of the Canadian indie explosion of the early 2000s, they don’t come with much better alternative credentials than Reg Vermue, aka Gentleman Reg. A former member of The Hidden Cameras, session musician for Sufjan Stevens and Broken Social Scene, and a bit-part player in John Cameron Mitchell’s indie porn-fest Shortbus, there’s clearly more to Reg than just the albino guy with the guitar.
A handful of albums in, and Jet Black again sees Reg adopting The Hidden Cameras / Arcade Fire method of marrying ultra-simple, syrupy melodies with high-pitched, wide-open-mouthed vocals, casting a cool eye over human relations with folky aloofness and low-grade angst. It’s an album which follows a bell-curve of quality, peaking with a three-song centerpiece but petering out into blandness at either end.
How We Exit is an insistent, super-catchy pop tune, starting off like a more chirpy Elliott Smith and weaving in some interesting atonality towards the end. It’s the undoubted highlight of the album, equally likely to please mainstream radio listeners and the Toronto indie die-hards. We’re In A Thunderstorm is ’60s-inflected rave comedown music in the vein of The Beloved, pulling in vintage sequencers and a Casio bossanova track, and ending up working far better than it has any right to.
Reward, a stripped-down power ballad, wouldn’t have been out of place on the soundtrack to Hedwig And The Angry Inch, and makes one fairly sure that John Cameron Mitchell will be on the phone to Reg as soon as he’s decided to make another film. His fragile delivery of the refrain “there’s no point in going back when our masterpiece is crumbling” is curiously affecting, although there’s always the suspicion that it’d all sound a touch flimsy without the gutsy female backing vocals propping up Reg’s frontline delivery.
And it’s Vermue’s vocals, which are thin and whispery at best, that render the remainder of the album pastier than the man himself. When he steers away from the Hidden Cameras formula of piling on as much instrumentation as the mixing desk can stand, Jet Black becomes a much weaker album.
The musical sparseness of the four opening tracks allow Reg’s voice to dominate, something it isn’t really qualified to do; and as a result they come off as thin, reedy Beatles and T Rex pastiches. Only a dedicated listener would persist with the album on the basis of these; and dark forces were clearly at play when the leaden Coastline was chosen as an opener.
While the closing tracks have some flashes of interest, they repeatedly fall into the same saccharine McCartney-esque clichés, making the last chapter of the album as unremarkable as the first. Final track Rudy salvages things a little, channeling Hammond organ-driven ’60s psychedelia through Blur‘s Beetlebum, but it’s not enough to leave a positive aftertaste from such a patchy release.