In 2019, Blake Mills and Chris Weisman were tasked with recording new music that sounded like it was 50 years old. They basically wrote an album’s worth of songs as a made-up band for the television adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel Daisy Jones & the Six, inspired loosely by the soft-rock drama of Fleetwood Mac. Energized by their introduction, the two continued working on new music that sounds like Jelly Road, with rich layers of guitars, vintage keyboards, and an assortment of woodwinds. In these 12 songs, they wrap surreal imagery in otherworldly melodies that feel blissful, seamless, and eerily suspended out of time.
Jelly Road feels of a piece with Notes With Attachments, Mills’ 2021 album with bassist Pino Palladino, another spirited collaboration between studio heads. Mills has used his solo output to develop his reflective songwriting and immersive production style; as a producer and accompanist with Bob Dylan, John Legend, Phoebe Bridgers, and plenty more, he’s become a formidable presence who nonetheless functions as support for somebody else’s project. Mills’ two album-length alliances have allowed him to bring both practices to the fore, and in contrast to the spiky jazz slant of Notes With Attachments, Jelly Road is smooth and satisfying from start to finish. The opening guitar tumbles of “Suchlike Horses” are a tantalizing introduction, rippling outward into a pool of wavering synth lines that sounds like a wayward trombone.
Weisman sketched out some of the shapes of Jelly Road on an iPad mini, emailing fragments to Mills late at night on borrowed Wi-Fi while he stood outside a local library branch in his hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont. Keeping a lower profile as a jazz-forward improviser, Weisman has admitted that he’s “always done only what the fuck I want to do, and skipped the stuff that irritated me” with regards his own work. In the same 10-year span that Mills has established himself as an in-demand producer, guitarist, and songwriter, Weisman has self-released more than 30 records of electroacoustic adventures, which range from longform deliberations to pocket-size petit fours.
Weisman told Fretboard Journal that he wanted to encourage Mills’ virtuosity as a guitar player, which manifests in the meaty guitar solo at the end of “Skeleton Is Walking.” It returns in “Breakthrough Moon,” which has a solo passage that settles in like a layer of strong incense amid a loose layer of percussion. There’s a quicksilver streak of sleaze to Mills’ twists and turns, outlining the sort of seedy lounge scene that might play host to the creatures of Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues.”
Jelly Road is populated with Hammond C3s, a Roland Juno-106, and a celeste, which Mills and Weisman alternate between an assortment of acoustic, fretless, and electric guitars and basses. Sam Gendel steers the Electronic Wind Controller on “Unsingable,” later picking up the more familiar saxophone for “Without an Ending.” On “Wendy Melvoin” and “There Is No Now,” he plays a massive contrabass recorder, adding a woody texture that feels both earthy and extraterrestrial. In “Highway Bright,” Weisman and Mills offer independent bass parts on each side of the mix, a detail that leaps out in close listens.
The bewitching air of the instrumental “Wendy Melvoin”—named after the guitarist and vocalist from Prince’s band the Revolution and Wendy & Lisa—makes it one of the album’s strongest moments, and the woman herself joins Weisman and Mills on multiple tracks. Accompanying Prince, Melvoin was indispensable to the Revolution’s high-power sound; here, she expands the duo’s adventures with more subdued flourishes. In “Press My Luck,” her off-kilter wah-wah guitar additions sketch a loose figure, and the electronic interference that crackles through creates a picture that echoes the jumpy, colorful abstraction of scrambled cable.
Though Jelly Road is an invigorating listen, at times, it feels like a case study in hauntology: its squishy production and armory of vintage gear evoke a warmth toward the past, while its lyrics and gently off-kilter melodies hint at wariness toward some vague future. Time is short and littered with empty material rewards in “The Light Is Long,” but it fully dissolves in “There Is No Now,” where Mills croons, “Time unfolding is a trick.” The soft piano and resonant percussion of “Unsingable” pads the reflexive approach, with Mills wondering aloud about the existential qualities of making music: “What can make a song unsingable? What can make a song feel lost?”
In Jelly Road’s title track, Mills’ layered vocals breeze around percussive cloudbursts, its lyrics populated by once-happy dinosaurs and the cozy storybook kings Frog and Toad. It feels like spiritual kin to the kooky Jerry Garcia-David Grisman take on “Teddy Bears’ Picnic,” with a more wistful undercurrent that speaks to lost pleasures. “And though we’ve had some good times/This is what we chose/Tell me it again/About the Jelly Road,” Mills sings, with an air of melancholy that such a place exists only in fantasia. Though clouds of doubt hang in the eaves of Jelly Road, Mills presents a straightforward perspective in “Press My Luck,” where he offers, “Things start getting clearer when they’re fucked.” The path forward may be paved with crumbling bricks, but, as Jelly Road suggests, there might be unknown delights left to discover along the way.
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