Featured Artist May 2007: Jeff Heiskell (Former Judybats Frontman)

Each month, Twirl Radio scours the country (and sometimes the globe) to bring the finest musical talent to the airwaves. As you might recall, last month we landed in Knoxville, Tennessee. Well, this month, for the first time, we just stay put–and keep ourselves parked in Knoxville–because we are celebrating Jeff Heiskell, and his new band Heiskell, as the Artist of the Month for May, 2007.

Back in the early 1990s, Jeff was the leader of the Judybats. I cannot overstate how innovative and creative they were. Their Native Son debut came roaring out of Knoxville. This landmark CD provided a showcase for Jeff’s inventive songwriting, his versatile vocals (which ranged from Stan Ridgway-like quirkiness to pure crooning), and the group’s ensemble musicianship, led by Peggy Hambright’s stellar keyboards. You could say that their sound represented the fun side of alternative music. Gosh, we really liked that band! They were rewarded with a fair amount of fame. Alternative radio airplay, and MTV and VH1 video exposure followed. Unfortunately, after a few more albums, and mishandling by their record label, they were overshadowed by the louder (and grungier) music coming out of Seattle (Nirvana, anyone?)

Fast forward to 2007. Jeff teamed up with the last incarnation of the Judybats (Doug Hairrell, guitars; Mike Hairrell, drums; Rob Bell, bass) and formed Heiskell. As Jeff told me, it was the rest of the band’s idea to use the name Heiskell. And it’s not just Jeff’s band–it’s a very democratically run band, with all four musicians contributing and making decisions.

After having gotten somewhat burned by the ravages of the music industry, Jeff is a little older and a little wiser. Life happened. But his songwriting instincts are sharper than ever, and they form the foundation for the debut album from Heiskell, Soundtrack for an Aneurism.

I know what you’re thinking: “does Heiskell the group sound like the Judybats”? Well–yes and no. There are some moments where Aneurism reminds me of the now-legendary opening five song salvo on Native Son, or the great songs on Pain Makes You Beautiful. But this new band introduces some new sonic textures as well. Let’s explore the album.

The opening track, Your Touch, is completely radio-ready–out of the box. Just press “play”. If this album has a hit, this is it. It’s an upbeat-sounding pop song, equal to anything Jeff did under the Judybats brand. A love song with edgy lyrics–a nervous start to a relationship. Who hasn’t been there before? Another song that sounds great from the first listen is The Death of Knoxville Cool. Again, great pop sounds–but with troubling lyrics, based on a real life observation, turned into a storytelling tour de force. And unlike the typical Judybats/Heiskell sound, there’s a guitar solo by Doug Hairrell at the end–very tasty. I wish the solo could have gone on for another minute or so.

A third instant standout–Farewell, Green Eyes–sounds like something R.E.M. might have recorded on their late 1980’s album Green–you know, the one where Michael Stipe finally started enunciating the lyrics clearly, and you realized what you had suspected all along–that the lyrics really were profound. The vocals sound ominous, and the mandolin and acoustic guitar are prominent in the mix. Jeff said that this one originally had a drum, but it annoyed Mike Hairrell (the drummer!), so they just turned off that track, and wound up with this quiet but intense song, written for a band associate who committed suicide.

I’ve already played those three compelling songs on my radio show, but everything else is standing up well to repeated listening. Songs like Beneath the Garden, Like A Vampire, and Love Again all have a good mid tempo alternative rock sound. Gasoline has a really rootsy feel, with dark lyrics. There’s a cover of the Lindsey Buckingham Trouble, with intimate, whispery vocals–Jeff tells me his intent was for the song to sound “creepy”. Actually, the vocals are fairly prominent throughout the disc–more so than in Judybats albums. All in all, there are about 7 or 8 songs off this album that I’ll be playing on my show. It’s really a strong collection.

It was so interesting talking to Jeff about his songwriting. Many of his songs start out based on real-life experiences and observations, then become an exercise in storytelling. I was amazed to find out that my favorite Judybats song, Convalescing in Spain, off of Native Son, was actually a true story. I’ve always been impressed with the clever way in which the main character dealt with the heartbreak of a failed relationship. Little did I know that Jeff was the main character, and he really did go to Spain!

All in all, Soundtrack for an Aneurism is a magnificent start to this phase of Jeff Heiskell’s career. He and the band have crafted a fine album, which should please Judybats fans, garner some new ones, and at the same time reassure us that brilliant songwriting and musicianship are alive and well. I wish Jeff well in this first post-Judybats effort, and am honored and pleased to have him hold forth over Twirl Radio as Artist of the Month for May, 2007!

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