Jeffrey Novak is the rock underworld’s most adept chameleon. Take one look at the Memphis man’s band history and you’ll see a series of quick genre switches. There was the one-man garage band record under his given name back in 2005, the classic ’77 trash-punk of Rat Traps, and his current, most well-received project, the weirdo pop-punk power trio Cheap Time. And now, between touring and recording with that band, Novak has returned to the world of solo records, stroking all the remaining ’70s fantasies he’s yet to tackle in his oeuvre.
His After the Ball LP arrives with a bit of interesting baggage. Its distribution deal through Matador has made it difficult to track down, the vinyl’s limited pressing of 500 making matters worse. It will eventually be put onto a CD via Jay Reatard’s Shattered Records, but I don’t know if that really helps. (Another 7-inch has been released on Shattered as well.) The artwork is a less than subtle homage to The Slider and Radio City at once, allowing first-impressions to set in even before a listen. And the music is some of the most over-reaching, faux-British period pap I’ve heard in ages.
Somehow Jeff makes it all work. What I like about Novak is his fearlessness while attacking the ideas of his heroes. The guy is willing to lay it all out, straight-faced as far as I can tell, taking on the heavily drugged Syd Barrett drawl (“The Lost Parade”) or the dramatic melodic sequences of Sparks (“Hello, Hello”, “Take Your Friends”), the quaint whimsy of Ray Davies (“Pretty Please”) or the rootsy simplicity of Alex Chilton. Most of the record plays like a demo mix-tape from all of these artists, written and played on piano with sparse bass and drums to accompany some of the tunes. There’s a fine line between homage and imitation; Novak straddles it well, but most importantly doesn’t look back, and he writes in a quick enough manner to keep the naysayers eating dust.
The solo scruff on After the Ball is definitely not the one-man-band we’re accustomed to, but this ain’t “singer-songwriter” material either. On paper it is one of those failed piano-bar glam records you see in the dusty racks and always get burned on. In reality, there’s something memorable about every song, whether it is the bouncy bass lines of “No One Misses You” or the hammed-up guitar licks on “Goodbye for Now.” After the Ball has the look and sound of a lost private press record, and the inconsistencies too (and soon, the price tag). But considering all the things that should have gone wrong with this record, it all ends up so pleasantly right.