With the release of What Hides Inside, it is no longer appropriate to think of the Jump Starts as Justin Johnson's other band; it probably never was in the first place. Johnson made an immediate mark on many listeners' radars when Pretty Little Empire began gigging and recording a few years ago, and he's continued to evolve as an emotive, intuitive songwriter as well as a visceral performer. When he joined up with drummer and backing vocalist Sarah Ross (of the now-defunct Paper Dolls), it seemed like a low-key, lo-fi lark and a way to air some songs that had a bit more twee-pop verve than PLE's more cinematic, turbulent work.
But if last year's Ready, Set, Go... was the sound of some casual bedroom rock out to tape, What Hides Inside fleshes out the duo's sound while strengthening its core. (At this point, a lesser critic would point out that the Jump Starts has put out two releases since the last Pretty Little Empire LP; this critic is content to keep his fingers crossed that the long-awaited third album brightens our new year.)
Recorded with the help of some local players like Curtis Brewer (Kentucky Knife Fight), Melinda Cooper (Union Electric) and Jay Lewis (Last to Show First to Go), Inside feels more full but is never crowded. Brewer's banjo helps give the waltzing "There You Are" some dulcet tones to go along with Johnson and Ross' strong harmonies. Johnson's PLE bandmate William Godfred offers some electric guitar ambience on the low-slung "Last Time," though it's Johnson's own sharply strummed acoustic guitar that cuts through the most on these tracks. It's a simple formula that works so well for the Jump Starts -- if Johnson brings tension with forceful guitar and an urgency on the microphone, it's Ross whose steady, unfussy drumming and cool vocals that provide ice to her partner's fire.
Jump Starts Album Release Show 9 p.m. Saturday, November 10. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $7 to $10. 314-773-3363.