ALBUM REVIEW: Caleb Landry Jones transcends definition on debut LP

Caleb Landry Jones, The Mother Stone

While known for acting roles in movies like “Get Out” (2017) and “X-Men: First Class” (2011), Caleb Landry Jones has long harbored musical ambitions. Other than the short-lived Robert Jones project in the 2000s, his relegated his ideas to the deep recesses of his mind and the occasional recording session in his parents’ barn. Rather than let his songs die, Jones has nurtured his art into the grand declaration of his debut album. The Mother Stone is a masterclass of expansive, mesmerizing and arresting psychedelic music.

The Mother Stone
Caleb Landry Jones
Sacred Bones Records, May 1

If The Beatles recorded “The White Album” with Tom Waits and David Axelrod, it might resemble this massive undertaking. The album starts with its two longest cuts, “Flag Day / The Mother Stone” and “You’re So Wonderful.” Both songs could fill entire albums with their arrangements. As chamber orchestras commingle with a psych-rock rhythm section, Caleb Landry Jones still dials in his emotive voice. Whether he screams or sultrily croons, he evolves his singing to fit the musical mood swings. Regardless, he remains firmly rooted in memorable melodies.

Clocking in at over an hour, The Mother Stone is best approached as one long excursion. Transitions between songs feel completely disjointed unless you take them in seamless succession. Even as the nuanced beats, lush string arrangements and plodding piano creates a unique mood on “I Dig Your Dog,” it feels incomplete by itself.

The same goes for “All I Am in You / The Big Worm.” Jones incorporates grungy guitar riffs and moody baritone singing into his eccentric take on British Invasion, but it still feels like one small portion of the story. The creative zeal of this album cannot be overstated. Every semblance of conventional songwriting inevitably sinks into controlled atonality and symphonic crescendos. There’s too many layers to count, yet you’ll find yourself latching onto buoyant hooks amid the choppy ocean.

It’s easy to draw comparisons to Tom Waits when confronted with Jones’ croaking voice at the start of “Katya,” but the real similarity lies in what’s essentially “method voice acting.” Evil Jones comes with a gravely, dour timbre, while Good Jones brings a benevolent tone—as though he’s playing characters in a kaleidoscopic theater production. It’s a feel reflected musically, as cuts like “The Hodge-Podge Porridge Poke” come off like a Broadway show tune. Time changes, dynamic accents and expanded instrumentation remain as plentiful as they are natural.

From eight-minute journeys to two-minute anecdotes, every moment of The Mother Stone feels painstakingly thought out. The swaying groove of “No Where’s Where Nothing’s Died” and the crashing, distorted “The Great I Am” reflect the polarized nature of “The White Album.” But Jones’ sense of scope and attention to detail goes far beyond imitation of the original rock imagineers, especially in terms of sweeping dynamics and immaculate production.

Rather than drown his songs in weirdness, Jones always leaves room for rustic grit and serene, pleasing sound. That contrast allows “Lullabbey” to drift on a cloud of angelic vocals and organs, while also grounded by steadfast drumming and guitar strains. Such placidity contrast with explosive hits and accelerating rhythms of  “No Where’s Where Nothing’s Died (A Marvelous Pain).” The song may as well be the Phantom of the Opera theme played by a psych-rock band.

For all his exuberant musicianship, Jones’ work maintains a solid lyrical backbone. Interesting music notwithstanding, “For The Longest Time” and “I Want To Love You” bring some strikingly relatable storytelling. Respectively tackling turbulent love and hopeless romanticism, Jones’ evocative performances are packed with based narratives. It might sound like a chasmic acid trip, but there’s still humanity to be found in the mix.

The Mother Stone is a music lover’s album, written by someone who loves his creative process. The arpeggiated chimes, swelling strings and circus-like rhythmic bounce of “Thanks For Staying” develop with grace—while remaining founded on incredible songwriting chops. “Little Planet Pig” closes things out with a final conceptual gesture, recalling the album’s opening modulations.

Caleb Landry Jones may have just begun his solo career by topping himself. The Mother Stone is a truly engrossing experience. The years of time put into each track evidence themselves with each listen, as another facet of the songwriter’s vision unearths itself.

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