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We know why the caged bird sings: (clockwise from bottom): Dawson, Paul, Pellerin and Pollock of Jump Cannon. Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

Through a Riff, Darkly

Through changes in lineup and style, Albany pop faves Jump Cannon keep on writing melodic songs tinged with melancholic drama

By Shawn Stone

It was Friday night at Valentine’s, and the downstairs crowd was plenty fired up. The Baltimore-based punk trio Mary Prankster had just finished a terrific set; they cranked out an hour’s worth of angry tunes with satirical, sexually lacerating lyrics. The music lovers were well pleased and the beer guzzlers were hootin’ and hollerin.’ Jump Cannon, who thought they would be going on before Mary Prankster, and have a very different, subtler sound than the preceding act, took the stage with a wee bit of trepidation. Jump Cannon vocalist Sarah Paul warned the crowd, “we’re mellower.”

As things turned out, however, they need not have worried. Jump Cannon, actually, aren’t mellower; they’re just not as loud, and there is all the difference in the world in the distinction. The band’s dark, melodic songs and the quiet intensity of their playing appeal across genres. This was especially apparent in a new number which the band debuted that night. Written in an odd time signature (6/8), the as-yet-untitled song was complex as well as melodic, making interesting use of dynamics to build to a dramatic climax. The liquored-up, rowdy audience listened, appreciated and enjoyed. “And,” Paul notes with surprise, “they bought our CDs.”

“That’s not the first time that happened, either,” Paul says. The band played a double bill at the Fuze Box with local hard-rock favorites Small Axe recently, she explains, and their fans reacted with the same interest.

Jump Cannon originally were formed in 1997, with a lineup including three of the current members—guitarist and singer Shawn Dawson, drummer David Pollock, and Paul. (Pollock and Paul first worked together in 1989, shortly after the demise of Paul’s first band, Terrorcake.) They took their name from pioneering Harvard astronomer Annie Jump Cannon, who, working in a field previously dominated by men, catalogued more than 100,000 stars in the early 20th century. The choice turned out to be slightly ironic for a musical group, however: “It was only later that we discovered she was deaf,” Paul laughs.

Within a year they had developed a loyal following with their sweet-but-moody tunes, ’80s-style guitar drone, and stark vocal harmonies. Comparisons to the Cure were made, and Jump Cannon were named by Metroland as Best Pop Band of 1999. The band released a five-song EP, and more plaudits ensued. In early 2000, they went into the studio. Then, in late spring or early summer (they’re unsure of the exact date), their bass player left, which, Pollock explains, “threw everything into a state of flux.”

Bassist Jessie Pellerin joined the group almost as soon as the spot became available, but then was away for most of the summer. “She was in Cyprus for two months, on a dig. She’s our group archeologist,” Paul says.

When Pellerin came back, Jump Cannon started working again with renewed interest. The sound became less dark, but remained just as melodic and finely textured. They wrote new songs, and began playing out regularly again. There was only one problem: What to do with all the material they had recorded?

Paul elaborates: “We began these recordings two years ago when Jess wasn’t in the band.” When their then-bassist left, it was shortly after the group had finished recording almost a disc’s worth of instrumental tracks. “We thought maybe we’d do new tracks with the new bass player, then decided we didn’t want to throw away what we’d already worked on,” Paul sighs, and continues, “Then we ran into computer mishap after computer mishap—Dave did a lot of mixing on an external hard drive, which fried—and here we are a year and a half later.”

There will be a happy ending, though. “We did some vocals lately with John Delehanty at Scarlet East [recording studio],” Paul says. Pollock adds, “We see this all coming together soon. We’ve just bought some of our own equipment, and will be recording the vocals ourselves.”

With a tone of hopeful finality in her voice, Paul chimes in: “It will be a 2002 release.”

And they’re already making tentative plans for the next one. “We’re writing new material that we’re really anxious to record,” Paul says, “because we have a lot of songs that we’ve written with Jess.” This is important to them, as the group write their songs as a collective. Individual members bring in ideas, Dawson explains, “but we all work on them, and, in the end, they come out sounding like Jump Cannon.”

Just don’t ask the band to give their take on what exactly the “Jump Cannon sound” is. They don’t really want to pin themselves down to any particular genre. Even though some of their latest songs—they have three or four new ones in their performing repertoire, and more that are not ready for prime time—hearken back to their earlier, darker- sounding period, the band members all argue that this is neither a return to the past, nor something they’ll necessarily continue to pursue. And it’s worth mentioning that their musical tastes are so eclectic—with Pollack reminiscing fondly about going to Rush and Iron Maiden shows, and Dawson enthusing over everything from Kraftwerk to Public Enemy—that searching for early influences isn’t very helpful.

Jump Cannon will talk about their future plans, however. They’ve been making connections with out-of-town bands, in the hope of expanding their territory (“It’s hard, though,” Paul laments). They will continue to gig regularly, including upcoming appearances at Albany’s Larkfest (Sept. 14) and Valentine’s. Jump Cannon will continue to write new material, for, as Paul says, “we’re having fun.”

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