At first glance, Jungle seems like an appropriate title for Middle Class Fashion's new CD. On the band's two previous records - a self-titled EP and 2012's Girl Talk - lead singer/pianist/songwriter Jenn Malzone proved to be an expert at evoking tangled, awkward situations. So Jungle is supposed to reflect that, right?
Not exactly. "I know I'm supposed to have something very deep to say here," Malzone admits. "Here is the truth: We were in Lawrence playing the last show of a mini-tour. Katie (Lindhorst) and I both had colds, and it took everything the four of us had to gather our energy and perform. Then we started playing, and the crowd went kind of crazy. People were dancing and really getting into it. In the midst of this craziness, someone ran up and stuck a sticker on my keyboard that said, 'My Name Is JUNGLE.' I never took it off, because seeing it there made me happy. So we started calling the album Jungle almost like an inside joke."
Here's some more truth: Jungle is one of the most impressive records St. Louis is likely to produce this year. It's a remarkably solid effort that takes risks and usually succeeds. Though Malzone has been compared to Ben Folds at times for her piano-driven singer-songwriter approach (one local wag affectionately dubbed the band "Jenn Folds Five"), there's a definite power-pop flavor on at least half these songs, picking up nicely from Girl Talk songs like "Fun Whoa" and "Sugar Hrt Candy." In particular, "Let Me Down" and "Stuck" are multilayered yet hooky enough to compare with anything on the New Pornographers' first three albums.
She credits this, in part, to her experience playing in local power-pop combo Tight Pants Syndrome with MCF bassist Brian McClelland. "It's one of the most important things I've ever done," she says. "I've always had a natural tendency toward pop songwriting, but I attempted to stifle that for a long time so I could try to write darker, more experimental material. Being around Tom Stephens' songwriting influenced me to start focusing more on pop structure, hooks, melody. He made it seem effortless. He and Jeff Hess shared a lot of music with me that I hadn't heard before. I started listening to artists like R. Stevie Moore, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Sparks and weirder stuff like Captain Beefheart. I loved all of it."
At the same time, Malzone's lyrics have become both more elliptical and more confessional, with a certain nonchalant humor. Many of them sound as if they were written late at night after coming home from a show or a bar, still trying to make sense of this or that confusing interaction. However, she's still capable of being cutting and direct when necessary. On "Golden Rose," she sings, over a catchy chorus, "Tell your friend I know she is a liar/It only adds the fuel to the fire." On "Junk," she threatens in third person, "She's nothing short of compromise/She's not afraid of a good fight."
"More than anything, I think Brian, Brad (Vaughn) and I are more comfortable making music with one another on this album," Malzone says. "We've been playing together longer, and Middle Class Fashion has very much changed from being a side project to being our main project. Our hearts are in this."
Whereas McClelland recorded Girl Talk himself on his laptop, the band recorded Jungle at Sawhorse Studios with Jason McEntire. Just before recording began, Lindhorst joined the band on keyboards, percussion and backing vocals.
"I first saw her perform with her other band, the Glass Cavalry," Malzone says. "She was this little ball of energy on stage, very talented and so obviously in love with playing music. Once she joined MCF (it went kind of like 'Katie, want to join our ba-' 'Yes!'), she was adding these perfectly placed synth tones as well as tambourine, and even some vocals. Her energy and input definitely helped to expand our sound for the new album."
MCF performing at the Firebird in December.
With the addition of Lindhorst, this means that MCF's four respective members are in about half a dozen other bands. McClelland plays in Whoa Thunder as well as Tight Pants Syndrome. Lindhorst's Glass Cavalry just released its debut album. Drummer Brad Vaughn has drummed for Union Electric, and is starting a new project with Josh Boyer. Malzone contributes to Town Cars, which recently made its vinyl debut on Extension Chords Records, and has been spotted singing and performing with Sleepy Kitty, The Defeated County, and others. It all makes sense for a band that Malzone says itself began as a side project, yet must be a nightmare when it comes to scheduling.
"I've always felt that it's a good thing for everybody to be involved in multiple projects," Malzone says. "It keeps things interesting, and it also makes each of us stronger, more adaptable musicians. Every time I play with different people, I learn things. I like the challenge of supporting other musicians, of not always being the lead singer. I think my bandmates share my philosophy. If these other projects mean the occasional scheduling conflict, we deal with it and figure it out. The benefits are far worth the occasional hassle."
Both as performers and attendees, MCF is nothing if not dedicated to the local music culture. "Being immersed in the St. Louis scene has made me grow so much as a musician," Malzone says. "There are so many great bands putting out great material; it provides a constant challenge and inspiration to me. And while I suppose that could be interpreted as competition, it feels much more like a supportive community. There's room for everybody. The first time I got to see Sleepy Kitty, I remember being so completely wowed by 'Gimme a Chantz!' that I went home and worked for hours on new songs. I love experiencing a wonderful show and also feeling that push to keep up with these talented people."
"Trying to list my favorite St. Louis musicians is impossible," she adds. "There are too many. If you ride in my car at any point, you're likely to hear Finches by Nee. Kristin Dennis has made an album that sounds just as good as the national acts being praised on Pitchfork. Langen Neubacher is one of the best songwriters I know. She creates such an eerie haunting sound that is entirely her own, while still using pop structure and writing hooks that stick to your brain. Golden Curls are absolutely a band to watch. Their song, 'Your Girl,' and their recent live shows, have them quickly becoming one of my favorite bands."
Even as Jungle dramatically and ambitiously broadens MCF's palette, Malzone remains down to earth about her ambitions. "I want to write the best songs I am capable of writing. I want to keep evolving as a musician. And I can do that by surrounding myself with talented musicians, going to shows, discovering music from bands that I didn't know existed, and most importantly, writing every day. This ultimate goal makes me feel like my life has purpose, and the journey is what makes my life interesting."