J.P. McGill

“Against the Sea”


J.P. McGill


(Pipeline Music)

J-P McGill is a singer-songwriter from the NYC area who makes music for himself. 


   McGill says his songwriting and performing "are uncontaminated" and his music often falls outside established genres, leading reviewers to describe his work as "outsider music", suitable for example as background for a Charles Bukowski rant.   McGill's gravelly voice overlays eclectic styles, drawing from industrial rock, Afro-Cuban, sea shanties, Latin, and roadhouse blues, unconventionally using instruments such as 17 note kalimba, resophonic guitar, shamisen, and djembe. 

   McGill came of age on Chicago's north side, a haven for blues and folk music.  At one point, McGill split his time between the American Conservatory of Music and the No Exit Café near Loyola University.  At the No Exit, McGill befriended the blues guitarist Blind Jim Brewer, spending time at Jim's south side home to learn the difference between music and musician.  Since, McGill's music has been shaped by travels ranging from ceilidhs in Cape Breton to rebetiko while living in Greece.




This way madness lies.

          On the roiling surface of this infinitely amusing 15-tune collection is a disjointed, chaotic and possibly intentionally off-putting brand of harshly recorded ballads that nearly qualifies as “outsider” music. Think Oregon’s Tom Heinl but without the subversive humor (although the final cut, “The Baby Tree,” is pretty funny).

          Is it a joke? Is it a test? At first blush it feels like both.

          But under the surface is an astonishing set of imaginatively arranged songs that use the metaphor of the sea as an obstacle to life’s goals, but with never the same imagery twice, and with hardly any choruses, at least in the traditional manner. And never with the same instrumentation – or the same instruments – performed in the same way.

          And there’s that voice. Flat to rising to sing-song; gravelly to gravellier. Certainly at some point in his music career, someone somewhere told singer-songwriter J-P McGill that he was, um, not very, er, commercial. Obviously he ignored the comments because the New York transplant-by-way-of-Chicago has honed his gifts – he plays everything from piano to kalimba to shamisen to resonator guitar – and produced this product of his passion.

          Let’s get the Tom Waits comparison out of the way; clearly influenced by the remarkable Waits, McGill includes two Waits covers back to back, “Shiver Me Timbers” and “Fish and Bird,” two cuts that happen to support the aquatic theme. The odd thing is, in a disc full of odd things, he makes the uncoverable sound like his own.

          There are some great images here. “Keep you sleeve out the winch if the longline goes slack, take it from me an arm never grows back,” from “Fathers in Gloucester.” “When you sink down down down the drink, ‘till you don’t wanna move and you just can’t think,” from “One Note Float” works because it’s encased in a double-beat of kalimba (by guest Joe Lowe) and reverby guitar.

          “Ken and Catherine,” the one cut with a traditional blues structure, not to mention a very credible twangy slide guitar, seems out of place, but upon further review, since every other rule is broken why not the exception that proves it?

          The highlight, though, is “Psycho Sub Samba,” an organized chaos of a foot-tapper about a submarine captain who loses it and, if we have it right, launches a nuclear missile.

          Can you put “Against the Sea” on the CD changer during a party of Chardonnay sipping urbanites discussing the interiors of their new hybrids? No. Nor can you put it on during a beer blast with a bunch of lumberjacks, or during happy hour at any place (unless Charles Bukowski is holding court).

         In other words, you can’t play J-P McGill for ANYBODY unless you draw attention to the music beforehand, because this is the kind of music that needs a little anticipation and foreknowledge – you don’t want to surprise anybody with a cut like “Moby Told Me” when they might be expecting something less abrasive and disturbing. But be prepared for either a quick exit by your companion or losing them in conversation as they devote the next hour absorbing the briny froth of McGill’s water borne musings.