Last we saw Mystery Jets, circa 2006 at Mercury Lounge, they were crusty youth who weren't sure whether they wanted to be Dexy's Midnight Runners or King Crimson. Fast forward two years and we're at a mostly packed Bowery Ballroom and a lot has changed for the band. Gone is 50-something Henry Harrision, singer Blaine's dad who played with the group and probably said thing's like "That's not how Rick Wakeman would've done it!' at practice. With him went Mystery Jets proggy tendencies, replaced by soaring hooks and a love of Big '80s pop.
Their look has changed too, an unfortunate sparkly fashion sense seemingly inspired by Blanche on Golden Girls, complete with Prom Pearls. But we all wore some regrettable things when we were 20, as evidenced by the very young crowd many of whom looked like they'd just come from Neverland. (The island, not Michael Jackson's former ranch.) But I digress.
The weird time signatures and other whiffs of the '70s might be gone, but that love of Pentangle and Yes has paid off. Mystery Jets know how to play. They are tight, the harmonies are spot-on and generally sound great. And the eccentricities come out in some genius arrangements. The band stuck mainly to their second album, Twenty One (my #2 album of 2008), which doesn't look like it's ever going to come out in the U.S. (Having just signed to Rough Trade, though, pretty much assures that the next one will.) We also got one new song, "Lady Grey," and the three singles off their debut, Making Dens.
The album's best singles — "Two Doors Down" and last year's best song, "Young Love" — made the least impact live. I didn't mind so much that Blaine Harrison sang Laura Marling's part on "Young Love," but guitarist William Rees, who sings lead on this one, his mike was still set at "backup singer" so it really didn't pop the way it should've. "Two Doors Down" is the kind of song that probably just shouldn't be played live, it's so over-the-top '80s it should just be heard on the radio. And with the songs's saxophone coda being replaced with guitar, it went from sounding like Whitney Houston to Big Country, which is actually okay by me. The night's best songs were the sweeping, more ethereal ones: "Veiled in Grey," "First to Know" and a show-stopping, goosebump-inducing "Flakes" which seemed to lift everyone a couple inches off the floor.
SETLIST: Hideaway | Half in Love with Elizabeth | The Boy Who Ran Away | Young Love | Lady Grey | Flakes | Hand Me Down | First to Know | Alas Agnes | Two Doors Down | Behind the Bunhouse | ENCORE: You Can't Fool Me Dennis | Veiled in Grey
You can get the import of Twenty One from Amazon fairly cheap, but there's no legal digital option for us here in America, unfortunately. However, Mystery Jets just signed to Rough Trade which bodes well for us getting future releases.