Darren Jessee “Central Bridge”

Bar / None Records, 2023

Captivating third solo album from the Ben Folds Five drummer – brilliantly observed and intimate tales of heartache and happiness, with warm arrangements and swelling strings.

Darren Jessee Central BridgeUS singer-songwriter, Darren Jessee, is arguably better known for drumming with Sharon Van Etten, Hiss Golden Messenger, The War on Drugs, Josh Rouse and Ben Folds Five, for whom he co-wrote the hit ‘Brick’, than his solo material – he also fronted indie band, Hotel Lights. The bulk of ‘Central Bridge’, which is his third solo record, was written and recorded at his home in Durham, North Carolina. He says this allowed him to take his time putting it together and gave a comforting aura to the finished songs. It’s a lovely-sounding indie-folk record – warm and intimate, with swooning string arrangements by Trey Pollard and keyboard parts by producer Alan Weatherhead, who worked with Sparklehorse.

“We have a great chemistry,” Jessee says of Weatherhead. “We both have big vinyl collections and we enjoy all the little nuanced details of recordings. It’s like a band mentality, in a way, but it’s just two people. There are certain things we don’t even need to talk about anymore, and it’s really great for me just to play music.” That chemistry results in some truly wonderful moments, like low-key opener, ‘Love and Thanks’, a personal and nostalgic tribute to the power of music and friendship – “We rolled through towns, we shook the rooms, in parking lots danced around Scott’s tunes” – that’s coated in atmospheric keyboard strings that sound like they’re on the same setting as Springsteen’s ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad.

The acoustic guitar-led ‘Baby Don’t Love You’ is all late-night melancholy and filmic scenes – with a “jukebox moaning in the dark” and a nocturnal supermarket encounter, before Jessee passes out at home in-front of the TV, waking up at dawn, with the blue light still on. Conversely, ‘Sunbeam’ is a deliciously woozy, jazz-tinged paean to the simple joys of being in love: Hanging with my baby. A lazy Saturday. There’s nothing we can’t do. When I look at you, a perfect sunbeam.” Moving and bittersweet piano ballad ‘Mirage’“I loved you even when I was ruining it” – is swathed in stately strings, as is album closer, ‘I Live In Your Hometown’ – a heartbreaking tale about an ex who’s moved away while Jessee has chosen to stay behind in the place where they used to hang out: “I miss you now. We broke up, I stuck around. I live in your old hometown… I work part-time at Campus Wine. I stock the shelves with your favourite kinds.”

Jessee is a gifted songwriter – his lyrics are full of great observational details and strong imagery – and despite the sadness of some of these tales of small-town life and love gone wrong, there’s an uplifting quality, thanks to the sheer gorgeousness of the arrangements, which comfort you like an old friend putting their arm around your shoulder and telling you everything’s going to be okay. On ‘Wild Ascending Blue’, which is achingly beautiful, and, with its lush orchestration, recalls Overcome By Happiness-era Pernice Brothers, he sings: “It’s gonna take time the fox tells me, before I’m through the hills. First thaw of spring…”

‘Central Bridge’ is the perfect soundtrack for leaving the dark days of winter behind and ushering in the warm weeks ahead.

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About Sean Hannam 76 Articles
Freelance journalist, editor and presenter. Digs retro specs,The Smiths,Dylan,Cash,Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, country / Americana and '50s/'60s pop.
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