A Witnessing: David Katznelson guides us through BROTHER JT’s vast and beguiling career.
(originally published in Arthur No. 8)
For the past twenty years Brother JT has made records that exemplify the “freeness” and dark-green/blood-red hazy warmth of true psychedelia. As a songwriter, he is so proficient that no one takes notice; as a guitar player, he subtly outshines any slinger around (besides the Cheaterslicks’ Dave Shannon) with riffs, leads and solos that are consistently bewildering; as a rock star…well, he was just born for the job, regardless if anyone ever figures it out. He writes one-liner bits of philosophy that are as memorable as those of Yogi Berra, H. L. Mencken, or Will Rogers. JT is, in short, the most hidden of greatest treasures.
I have been a big fan of the music and vision of Brother JT since first hearing seminal, mind-altering tour-de-force Meshes In the Afternoon in the early ’90s. As I am prone to do, I have since collected his entire output…carrying my fanaticism so far as to release a record of his on my own label. If you are able to find a Brother JT record in a store–and it can be difficult (see bottom of page for record-location people who can help you)–know that it will most certainly do all the things you assume it will do: it will move you, it will rock you and it will uplift you. You will be swept away to a cloudy island where ideologies of a time long past are channeled through a devout soul whose musical prowess and ability to create a perfect melody welcome all and conquer all.
The following spew examines the mind-blowing, intolerably under-appreciated recorded output of Brother JT. Please note that it does not include the great recordings of his band The Original Sins, who deserve their own, separate celebration.
(1991, Twisted Village)
JT’s solo debut was a standard-setter for the mighty Twisted Village label and a good launching place for our now-Original Sins-less psychedelic hero. Beautifully packaged in a Folkways-meets-Impulse handmade black-and-white homage to John Coltrane’s Ascension, this platter features two sidelong drones. The Spacemen 3 called such constructions ‘ecstasy symphonies,’ but these two are dirtier and much less calm inducing.
Meshes In the Afternoon
(1992, Twisted Village)
A masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness psych. Meshes consists of one piece spread over two sides, with haunting yet hopeful songs coming in and out of the fuzz. “In The Afternoon” is a particular favorite, with a resolution that brings the whole record to a magnificent finale. Similar to the brilliance of Bill Holt’s Dreamies, Meshes In The Afternoon sees JT fusing his garage pop knowhow (always present in the Original Sins) with basement chemicals to create the warm, buzzing sound that would become his trademark. An essential artistic presentation.
“Ice Cream Cone/Moon Pie” 7-inch single
(1993, Mind Cure)
The year after Meshes was rather quiet for Bro JT, with the exception of a few releases under different names. The best of these is this single, a tour-de-force homage to JT’s favorite treats and a showcase for JT’s pop-garage flavors.
The first of JT’s beautiful vinyl-only homemade silk-screened releases. These introduce the basement-recording, song-oriented era of Brother JT hinted at within the mesh of Meshes. Side A is full of standalone hits, with “Time Was (…but now it isn’t)” the in-house chart-topping classic of swirly guitar vibrations and ghost like vocals. The second side is a returns to long-jam land (and what a good place it is to revisit).
Holy Ghost Stories
Number two in the homemade recordings series is a strange look into Brother JT’s acid-tinged, almost child-like obsessions. Songs like “From The Throne” examine that particular bodily function which infants first appreciate and soon become proud of. Holy Ghost Stories may not be a great place to start listening to Bro JT, but it does give the fan positive insight into the workings of JT’s imagination. And once again, the silkscreen cover is beautiful.
Music for the Other Head
Brother JT and Vibrolux
The cover looks as though it might be a Bedlam release, but it is actually a release from one of the classic underground labels in America, Siltbreeze. The first side of this platter, entitled “The Comet,” is epic: as Fuzzhead did with their rendition of Can’s “You Doo Right,” JT and Virbolux infectiously repeat the song’s grooves while JT proclaims that “The comet will come.”“Mind (rot), on Side 2, contains the classic JTism, “I don’t mind if you get out of your mind, do you mind if I get out of mine?” This record is groove-driven heaviness with long jams and lots of repetition. Bliss. Somewhere on Side 2, there’s even a piece of “Fortune Teller,” a song that was covered by all bands that mattered in England in the late-‘60s.
Rainy Day Fun
(1995, Drunken Fish)
The masterpiece of Brother JT’s basement era, with solid songwriting throughout. The album opens with the fragile “Is It Soup Yet?,” boasting backwards guitars and poignant narration. The sequence shown on the CD itself is wrong, so I‘m uncertain if the next song is the reported “This Is The Life” or if it is the one after. Regardless, the first is a groovy pop ditty while the second is a sing-along smile of a track that makes ya wanna shimmy. “Beginning To Smile” is another classic…one to sing to your girlfriend while embracing in a field of poppies (lyrics: “Have another hit, and then lets get down to it”). “Oh Mother” is JT-going-T. Rex with grinding guitar leads and confident vocals surfing the electric waves. “Slowly” is a great re-make of a song that appeared earlier on an obscure seven inch. The electric guitar is all swirls on this solid, lovable record. A classic.
Brother JT and Vibrolux
Originally released as a Bedlam artifact LP with silk-screen cover; Siltbreeze provides the digital issue with completely new artwork. Doomsday Rock is a thoroughly entertaining mind warp with epic grooves and brain-damaging soundscapes. Doomsday is here, and JT gets political with his prophetic preview, “The President’s Brain Is Missing.” “You can stop the clock,” he teaches on “Planet June”; “Now you’re gonna die,” he promises on the heavy “Grok.” Guitar solos on top of guitar solos (“In Her Space”, “Infinity”) weave the heaviest of Rye to fall through (and not be saved). A rockin’ good time.
Come On Down
(1996, Drunken Fish)
A melancholy, trapped trip of a record with somber, very fatalistic lyrics, the very minimalist Come On Down is composed mostly of tremolo guitar, wah-ed out lazy bass, an electronic mosquito and JT’s light, effected vocals. “Try Not To Try” and “Red Cathedral” are very laid back, almost Smog-like, sing-a-longs. The between song banter (“It Keeps Raining,” for instance) is laced with mind-altered collegian philosophy that pales to the righteous one-liners that often appear in JT’s music. Come On Down’s highlight is the closer “Little Man,” a stripped-down post-Syd-Pink Floyd-era whimsical toe-tapper. An oblique release.
Dosed and Confused
Brother JT and Vibrolux
Music for the Other Head-era concert recording. JT’s version of Live At Leeds, with extended heavily-rocked up versions of songs you have come to know and love, some incorporated into medleys a la “My Generation.” “The Comet” comes alive on this offering. As a live act, when Brother JT is on, the souls of Rob Tyner and Jimi Hendrix are called to order. A heavy motherfuckin’ ram job of a rock record.
Way To Go
(1999, Drag City)
The first of JT’s Drag City releases, produced by Royal Trux, is an all-out rocker with a good dose of JT as guitar God. But Way to Got lacks the intimacy of JT’s previous releases; it often sounds more like a JT-fronting-the Trux record than a Bro JT3 record. That said, the title track alone is a monster and worth the price of admission.
Maybe We Should Take Some More
A Brother JT record on my own label. While I don’t think it’s as cohesive as, say, Rainy Day Fun, there are many fine JT moments here. “SOS” (Son Of Sam) is a beautifully sparse track about the serial killer (among other things). “Whatcha Gonna Do” has inventive frog-belching responses and air-guitar-inviting riffs. The groover “Lay It On” lays down a killer bass line while JT asks “Baby, won’t you lay some light on me?” But it is “Honeysuckle” that is the jewel amongst this CD’s jewels: a wonderful Sunday morning favorite that sounds like a sun rising and naked lovers stretching. Maybe We Should Take Some More is a strong outing in the basement/bedroom recording category of Brother JT’s thang.
(2002, Drag City)
Released a few months after Maybe…, Spirituals nicely displays the other side of JT. This time, the Haggerty (Royal Trux)-producer/JT-performer team clicks and the resultant platter has the rock (as you would want JT to rock) as well as the detail of his basement recordings. Some of these songs, such as “Be With Us” and “Summer,” were originally presented as simpler tracks for Maybe, but JT rightfully wanted to flesh them out in the studio. “Mellow,’ my favorite track on the record, has that signature recorder sound, biting into the memory of all that were blowing it in elementary school. The “Mellow” vibe is reminiscent of the Ophelias’ opus “Mr. Rabbit,” with a chorus that is shower-singable and a frolicking groove that induces buffalo chasing. “Lord You Are The Wine” is a top-notch rocker, and the traditional song “Mole In The Ground” is a perfectly arranged head-bobber culminating with a trance-inducing, let’s-all-speak-in -tongues musical freak-out…and get a load of that killer slide-guitar action! Really strong stuff.
Hang In There, Baby
(2003, Drag City)
Possibly one of JT’s finest moments and the definite highlight of his Drag City work. Just listening to the catchy psych-pop brilliance of “Gettin’ There.” “Lets Not And Say We Did” showcases the soul-stirring aspect of JT’s voice, presenting a depth that is uncommon in JT’s ouevre. Strong all the way through, Hang‘s highlights include “Shine Like Me” (“Went to the mountain…the mountain in my mind”) which is a guitar-led flying rocker and “Head Business,” wherein we get yet another classic Brother JT line: “What I do with my head is my own damn business/CAN I GET A WITNESS??!?!?” What kind of witness is he looking for? Dunno, but Hang In There is probably the best place to start listening to Brother JT. Everything is here: great songs, amazing layer-upon-layer psychedelic guitar mayhem, and lyrics that will stick in your head like powerful propaganda.
Where to find Brother JT’s recordings:
Your local mom-and-pop record store will most likely have the Drag City releases, and maybe even the Birdman and Siltbreeze releases. But Brother JT’s catalog is generally not well stocked. Here are some places where one can get most of the Brother JT offerings reviewed here: