Release Date: Apr 21, 2015
Record label: Downtown
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Under the careful stewardship of mastermind Ellis Ludwig-Leone, Brooklyn's San Fermin has become a ferocious, precise vessel through which the sophisticated composer/songwriter can explore themes of love, yearning, mortality and the loss of innocence in an intensely cinematic fashion. His predilection for marrying sublime pop melodies to bombastic arrangements laced with classical avant-garde flourishes has reached a new level of focus, and, resultantly, potency, on Jackrabbit. While Ludwig-Leone's clarity of vision has surely grown, recording with the same unit the project most recently toured with (including now-regular co-lead vocalist, Charlene Kaye) seems to have added a sense of cohesiveness and intimacy, which is vital for an album as personal as Jackrabbit feels.
Jackrabbit's path to existence is different enough from that of San Fermin's self-titled debut that it's worth noting. San Fermin began as a lonelier affair, written solo by Brooklyn composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone; by the time a sophomore record was in the cards, San Fermin was a touring band. This had to be at the front of his mind this time when he started writing-their second album has a lot more going on at once, instrumentally, on a track-to-track basis, leading to many moments of carefully-arranged chaos.
San Fermin's self-titled 2013 debut was a heady brew of densely constructed chamber pop, the more abstract moments of the hour-long journey broken up with occasional bursts of more straightforward catchiness. The entire album was masterminded by Ellis Ludwig-Leone after completing a composition program at Yale, calling on various studio players and the vocal talents of Allen Tate and singing ensemble Lucius to bring his intricate vision to life. Following the critical acclaim the album drew, a live version of San Fermin toured extensively before Ludwig-Leone regrouped for follow-up sophomore effort Jackrabbit, which embraced more of the concise pop elements of the debut than its classical or chamber leanings.
After the first jaunt through San Fermin’s newest it-takes-a-village effort Jackrabbit, one song wafted around my mind: the live performance of Sigur Rós’ “Hoppipolla/Með blóðnasir” from their live DVD Heima. Gorgeous, serene vocals danced with pleasantly submissive instruments until an abrupt shift into an onslaught of bells, a chorus of vocals, and the collective euphoric tears of the Icelanders in the audience (and the Icelandphiles watching from home). Though there was a slight composition formula to San Fermin’s self-titled debut, the “Hoppipolla” strategy is employed on nearly every song on Jackrabbit, making for an altogether enthralling and, eventually, tiring listen.
If San Fermin’s self-titled debut was an opera, its follow-up, Jackrabbit, is an anthology of music videos. Where San Fermin was bound by a unifying narrative, Jackrabbit‘s songs come fast, hit hard, and disappear as quickly as they came. While Jackrabbit is a strong entry into the chamber pop genre, it is almost too pretty for its own good. It flirts with twee preciousness and never threatens to explode boundaries or leave a defining impact.
Jackrabbit is a record written by a composer, sung by one guy who sounds exactly like Matt Berninger and one girl with the confidence of a thousand vocalists, featuring songs centered on an amalgamation of emphatic horns, bold piano, moody synths, lilting strings, a lit-up choir and even a few bells. In other words, Jackrabbit has all the ingredients for an original, valuable and powerful record, but the recipe still needs work. San Fermin is a band named after a Spanish festival named after a Catholic saint.
Note to Lincoln Center: When you need a coming-of-age opera about Brooklyn strivers, Ellis Ludwig-Leone is your man. His orchestral-pop project San Fermin is the latest entrant to the new music economy where artists simultaneously court rock-club crowds and commission-granting art institutions, right there with Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projectors and the National. On San Fermin's second LP, Ludwig-Leone channels quarter-life existentialism through sophisticated wind and string compositions, with extended-technique brass ("The Woods"), old-timey fiddle ("Parasites"), odd-metered beats ("Philosopher") and flamboyant choral bits ("Two Scenes").
Ellis Ludwig-Leone is pretty lucky. His vision for San Fermin, his oddball pop project, has been realised via a rabble of frighteningly talented musicians and friends who turn his laptop compositions into mountain-moving, epic final products. Like San Fermin’s first, self-titled album from 2013, ‘Jackrabbit’ was born only on Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s laptop, but after the experiences that touring the first record with a band gave him, he decided to re-record the whole thing, and as such it has blossomed into a carnival of influences and adaptation via the seven musicians that end up making San Fermin.
Ellis Ludwig-Leone, who records as San Fermin, studied composition at Yale University, served as a musical assistant under Nico Muhly and is a young, pop-classical fixture in New York City. It all sounds quite a lot like the backstory of Dave Longstreth, and his music sounds even more like Longstreth’s: San Fermin’s breakout single "Sonsick" was essentially the Broadway version of "Stillness Is the Move", and the resultant record followed suit with highbrow, heavily orchestrated chamber indie with literary aspirations. Ludwig-Leone remains the project’s primary songwriter, composer, arranger and lyricist, but he takes the focus off himself for Jackrabbit, presenting San Fermin as a legit, eight-person touring band.
San Fermin distil a cacophony of instruments and vocals into the ‘drink me’ bottle of curiosity that is Jackrabbit. To use the Alice in Wonderland metaphor from catchy single “Emily”, “let the night take me / down, down / down the rabbit hole”. Its unlikely many listeners to Jackrabbit will know that the music on this record is composed and written by the superbly named Ellis Ludwig-Leone, yet it is performed by a distinct set of musicians.
Jackrabbit, the sophomore effort from Brooklyn baroque-pop octet San Fermin, often resembles the animal of its title: excitable, prone to quick movement, tough to pin down. With mixed results, it bolts in and out of myriad carefully composed sounds that obscure the line from A to B while embracing tangents. It begins strong, its chamber pop punctuated by complex arrangements.