Like some update of the Robert Johnson legend, it was at Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong’s seventh gig, at London’s Borderline, that the darkling forces of ‘industry’ gathered, listened, and pronounced them The New Saviours Of Everything (07/08 Tax Year). History doesn’t record whether there was a Mr Lou Cipher in the audience, but whatever deal was struck, Joe Lean probably now wishes they’d all stayed in to watch The Apprentice that evening. Why? Firstly, because The Apprentice is top-notch telly. Secondly, as a consequence of this early hubris, he’s been handed a poisoned chalice, a Faustian pact, a hospital pass. Expectations, generally, are a bitch.
They’re worse if you’re Joe Lean, one of the most striking pop stars this country has produced in years. An unearthly thin wolf in spiv’s clothing, gifted with a mouth so gobby that it makes other mouths look like mere apertures, the guy who wants nine-year-old girls and 80-year-old men in different countries to dance to his music at the same time. Underneath all his sky-vaulting ambition, though, lurks enormous potential. There is no smoke without fire, and no ‘Lucio Starts Fires’ without a furnace of talent beneath. And if Joe hasn’t quite made the album that walks like he talks, it’s only because the talk was so weighty to begin with. On its own terms, ‘Joe Lean…’ is a fine piece of work: a genuinely innovative debut that takes a whole tradition of soul and doo-wop and stretches it over the chassis of the latest post-Strokesian thinking in duelling-guitar indie.
Shimmering, sharply-cut, swathed in hooks as pointed as the Jong’s Chelsea boots, their debut assuredly stakes out what Joe himself might dub its ‘sonic aesthetic’, crystalising around the twining twin lead guitars of Dom O’Dare and Tommy D. The peak of the pair’s powers, live show instrumental opener ‘Tough Terrible’, has been left off, but when ‘Lonely Buoy’ changes gears into the bit where Joe gasps about “sparks… that rattle”, where the pair’s instruments seem to coil and release like springs, it’s hard to dismiss them as minstrels of ‘generic indie’. At the helm of it all remains Joe, gazing through his 1963-tinted specs, offering a highly stylised view from his Smokey Robinson-obsessed planet.
He’s a man of idealised yearnings, a guy who still thinks innocence has its own attraction, meaning that his lyrical eye often offers nothing more than a kennel-full of puppy love, as on ‘Dear Rose’: “You, yeah baby it’s you/You’re the one that I choose/With those eyes of azure blue/I just can’t help being in love with you, girl”. Without checking in our big musical almanac, we’re pretty sure a similar sentiment has been uttered before somewhere in pop history. When the hooks dry up, weaker songs suffer heavily from that sense of having absolutely nothing to say.
Everything shifts into sharper focus when you notice that Joe has pinched the pivotal phrase of his ‘Teenager’ from ‘Teenager In Love’, a doo-wop relic from his idols Dion And The Belmonts, and re-cast it as the only song that clangs of reality. “I’m just a teenager in love, try’na get dun”, he exhales, with the bored frustration of a Sex Pistol, allowing a brief glimpse of how vital this band could be if they threw off some shtick. It may not be as good as Joe thinks, but – just like he said – ‘JL&TJJJ’ fizzes with pure pop euphoria, and in ‘Where Do You Go’ and ‘Brooklyn’, offers up two of the year’s great singles. What else would you like it to do, exactly? Stand on its head?