JATK – Shut Up And Be The Light

Since the release of their 2019 EP, JATK – a band featuring Matt Jatkola and a revolving cast of friends – has slowly built a solid online following. A series of digital singles released throughout the lockdowns of 2020 and ’21 showcased some great and fuzzy, retro rock music, but also seemed unafraid to throw a few pop influences into the mix. This showed a band who were keen to avoid easy labelling; a band starting out on an adventurous path, and a band who had the potential to deliver a rich and varied full length release somewhere down the track. Simply put, JATK quickly marked themselves out as a very cool collective.

Any perceived coolness appeared to extend far beyond the music, too. When experiencing the digital releases as a whole package, it’s clear that Jatkola had thought very clearly about the JATK brand, since each downloadable single came wrapped within the visuals of a half eaten doughnut, thus giving the band’s catalogue a very uniform look. With their clean imagery and bold typeface, the digital singles became easily recognisable; to see each of the downloads together is almost like witnessing the classic Suede singles in junk food form…and they look great.

After two years’ worth of digital tracks and EPs basically drip feeding an audience various audio treats, fans were increasingly eager for something bigger. It may well have been a long time coming, but the first JATK album doesn’t disappoint. If anything, it’s broader sounding and more varied than most might expect.

The slow writing and recording process for ‘Shut Up And Be The Light’ took place in a fractured manner, and in a fractured world – both global (restrictions from a global pandemic) and personal (Matt’s journey with cancer, and the treatment thereof). Almost as if mocking the difficult process, the album begins with a reprise of a track that most people hadn’t actually heard at the time of release. That reprise of ‘Leave You’ actually acts as an effective fanfare, with a keyboard drone and multi-tracked voices creating a grand introduction, falling somewhere between They Might Be Giants and Todd Rundgren. Very deliberately, the mellotron inspired noises suggest something retro, yet at the same time give no real indication of what’s to come. As earlier singles showed, JATK might indulge in something retro and arty, but this could just as easily be a lead in for some quirky and soulful pop. With that in mind, could the drones signify a massive voyage into a world of Van Der Graaf Generator inspired prog rock noise? A venture into the grandiose pop of Jellyfish? It could even be something else entirely, but whatever the outcome, it instantly sets up a great promise. Eventually, ‘Easy To Kill’ turns out to be from the “something else” category, exploring a semi acoustic workout at first with Matt plucking at sparsely presented guitar strings and setting a very simple melody in place. The demo-like vocals and hazy sound have faint callbacks to a couple of the early JATK singles, but immediately there’s a suggestion of something new. Eventually, the rest of the instrumentation explodes into life, and a fuzzy guitar provides a strong indie rock heart. As someone with a keen interest in classic power pop and bands like Cheap Trick, Matt drops in an effortless chorus hook – repetitive, but never throwaway – where a pop-ish indie rock melody finally gets to soar, before a heavily sustained lead guitar actually sounds as if its desperate to channel Robert Fripp on David Bowie’s classic ‘Heroes’. In terms of proper openers, it’s got elements of many JATK touchstones – it’s poppy enough to be broadly appealing, rocky enough to present some serious chops, and works with the kind of semi lo-fi production that fans of 90s college rock will find very gratifying. More importantly, it doesn’t sound entirely like anything from the earlier singles, yet still very much sounds like JATK at play.

…And obviously, having now made an impression, Matt opts for a change of style. Not in a way that feels like self-sabotage either, more in line with a man and band doing stuff just because they can. ‘Never Gonna Be Your Girl, Friend’ works some solid synth pop grooves beneath fuzzy melodies and treated vocals, at first seeming to channel bands like The XX and Hot Chip, but the later introduction of a distorted guitar gives the material a genuine muscle that a lot of twenty first century alt-pop just doesn’t have. If anything sticks here, though, it’s the lyric, and Jatkola surely knows that his repetition of the title, quickly sounding like an old Prince hook adapted by Fountains of Wayne, has an easy charm. The retro synths dance against a brilliant wall of sound and a shameless pop vocal contrasts with the music in the manner of something that knows its able to take power pop beyond the predictable Jellyfish and Cheap Trick routes, and with that, JATK leaves behind a potential pop/rock classic.

With ‘Don’t Call’, JATK takes a far more obvious influence from Prince and turns in the most direct tribute ever. By opening with a slow pulsing bass set against a mechanised beat, it’s obvious that this will be different avenue for Matt and the band (yet again), but the arrival of a vocal makes the track’s instigator really obvious. Via the gift of some studio trickery, multi-tracking and pitch adjustment, the track reawakens the sounds of Prince’s 1987 alter ego Camille, and when pulling the same trick, Matt sounds like a cross between a female soul trio and a weird teenager. In truth, it actually works better here than when when the Prince explored similar avenues, since Prince always sounded like a pitch adjusted version of his own peach and black 1987 self. Jatkola is unrecognisable. He’s also got the presence of a full pop choir, and that, set against the slow R&B groove is enough for the track to fly. It’s not quite that basic, of course, and a couple of busier interludes introduce a brilliantly rhythmic groove, and moments of simple piano flesh out the sound in a surprisingly full way. In addition, its tongue in cheek lyrics dealing with isolation (“Spider webs like a spider, man / I been screening my calls like my name was Gwen”) almost carry as much of a cheeky Prince-like mood. The whole package works better than the individual elements, and via a mix of sheer balls and melodic ear, JATK serves a winner with this left field offering.

‘Japanese Butterfly’ reverts to indie rock with a faster tempo and JATK’s patented “Cheap Trick under shoegaze fuzz” sound, but there’s plenty within its tried and tested approach to entertain. Opening with a wall of feedback, the main version of the song announces its arrival with a dark undertone, but barely thirty seconds in, its thinly disguised sunny alt-pop melody calls out with a real confidence, while Matt’s distorted guitar cranks through the riffs as if it’s 1993 and he’s an aspiring Bob Mould. In terms of pulling in the listener with immediate effect, it does a fantastic job. …And then the chorus hook hits, drawing melodies from ‘Bandwagonesque’ era Teenage Fanclub and The Gigolo Aunts with absolute glee. Although never flashy, a short instrumental break – fully indebted to the alternative sounds of ’94 – gives the track a little more weight when throwing Matt’s guitar work to the fore, and two or three listens in, the track’s constant battle between fuzz and melody combined with an optimistic outlook sounds like peak JATK.

Released as a single ahead of ‘Shut Up…’, ‘When Tomorrow Comes’ is a very smart rock number. The main riff is much bigger and dirtier than pretty much everything else on the album itself, and set against a heavy stomping beat, it has far more of a 70s glam rock intent. In true JATK tradition, though, the multi-layered guitar parts, dense sound and general overdrive are more in keeping with Cheap Trick than Sweet, and armed with a massive chorus line, the band takes the track to glory with ease. There’s plenty here that’ll stick right from the first play too, since the 70s-meets-90s sound really captures Jatkola’s natural gift for a hook, both musically and lyrically. ‘Making Love Til We’re Breaking Up’ continues the album’s trend for a curveball and throws some minimalist baroque pop into the mix. Synthesized strings lay the foundations, and Matt drops into a soaring, emotive vocal, very quickly. As the slow burning arrangement begins to grow with a wall of keys that never want to let up, there’s room enough for horn sounds and an eventual choir of extra vocals, but any extra bells and whistles are merely there to augment a great tune rather than create it. The focus remains on the voice. Although in some ways, the DIY recording style never gives this the kind of send off it really deserves, it definitely shows how Matt’s songs are what’s most important, and even this glorified demo never hides a strong melodic core.

The mechanised funk pop of ‘Gas Station’ – all groove and heavy click tracks – threatens to send everything a little too far off centre but, thankfully, there are a couple of pure power pop numbers during the album’s second half to set things back on track. When reaching for the pop, JATK really delivers, and between the semi acoustic sugar rush of ‘Slide Back Down’ – often tackling something that occasionally sounds inspired by the Gregg Alexander catalogue – and the obvious Teenage Fanclub/Gigolo Aunts jangle pop core that drives ‘Conscious Woman’, the album offers a strong pairing that could reel in first time listeners with ease. ‘Rind The Wind’, meanwhile, aims for something a little bigger, with old show tune echoes applied to a strong vocal melody, atop some dreamy 90s pop undercurrents. The power pop heart still beats furiously, but in his desire to experiment with the genre just a little, Matt has been able to stretch the formula enough to make it work with a world of deep beats and echoes without ever making anything seem forced. Some might find the light reverb a little distracting at first, but there’s a fine, lilting melody at play here, ready to leave behind something wistful and reflective, but above all…memorable. Last up, there’s ‘Leave You’, as teased at the beginning of this journey. With an echoing vocal and acoustic guitar at the fore, the droning elements of the earlier musical sting aren’t obvious at all, but what transpires is a slice of quirky acoustic pop that shows Jatkola as both a natural songwriter and performer. As with a couple of the other tracks, the DIY feel is a little overplayed, but a bright, retro sounding guitar solo and call and response vocal during the track’s second half provide enough of an uplift to make this a very natural closing number.

You’d think the mix of styles and sporadic approach to recording would give ‘Shut Up And Be The Light’ too much of a patchwork feel. It’s more coherent than it could have been, and at times when things feel a little scattershot, in casting a wide musical net, there’s a confidence in the material that always makes it work. Even with one or two tracks that don’t quite sit comfortably, this is a great LP. A brilliant showcase for all of Jatkola’s talents, it gives the listener almost everything they’d half expected from a JATK full length and more besides. If you’re a sucker for a layered sound, a fuzzy guitar and a rousing chorus, then this is definitely worth exploring.

April 2022