Between the dusty, desert noir of its verses and its cascading post-rock chorus, Two Cent Revival’s single “Crow” transitions suddenly from a Southwestern border feel reminiscent of Calexico or Ennio Morricone to the pulsing, arena-ready art-rock of Radiohead, The National, and Arcade Fire. In that way, “Crow” is a perfect orientation for a listener embarking on Demons, Two Cent Revival’s 11-song collection of surprising, narrative folk rock.
There’s a lot going on under the hood of Matt Jones’ unlabored Americana songcraft and his baritone delivery. Adopted from Brazil and raised primarily in Houston, Texas by American parents, Jones’ perspective as a Latino-American is ever-present in his writing, as is the looming specter of Jones’ lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety. Throughout Demons, Jones explores both the nuances of his multicultural identity and his mental health issues, while stylistically maintaining a balance between haunted old-world source material and a contemporary sense of selfhood and style play. The end result is an organic, complex, and unpredictable sound all his own.
The guiding light of Tom Waits hovers over Demons as it does over essentially all progressive roots music of the last 35 years. Jones, however, approaches his subjects with a gravity and formality more in line with the raw narrative finesse of Nick Cave than the carnivalesque surrealism of Waits. Magical realism and mystical imagery pervade these stories of outlaws and obsessions. Dramatic personae and unfiltered confession take turns at the microphone until finally they are indistinguishable. Demons conjures a timeless, insular world of dark folk myth without conceding to the stylized and the retro. Sonically, Jones takes influences ranging from Langhorne Slim and Shovels & Rope to Beirut & The Decemberists, wringing out their most affecting qualities and distilling them into a unique, powerful blend of expressive folk-rock.
The spare and restrained, “Candy” rocks in ways moody and raw as it introduces Demons recurrent themes of obsession and compulsion. With its Biblical parallelism and its aching prettiness, “Happy Hell” advances the thematic dualities that lie at the heart of the record. The stumbling saloon swing of “It Looks Like Blood to Me” (a stylistic sweet spot revisited on “Violins”) disguises one of the record’s most topical and pointed songs.
Demons is a record of musical and lyrical paradoxes—light and dark, design and chance—embodied in the title of the lavishly produced centerpiece “I’m Being Used,” where the meaning of “used” pivots between “exploited” and “put to a higher purpose.”
Two simple and elegant love songs provide Demons’ purest affirmations—the gentle, spacious brush groove of “Julia” and the soaring, roots-ethereal anthem “Dose of Grace.” But it is the brass quintet hidden in the album-closing, Klezmer-inspired title track that epitomizes the paradoxical aesthetic of this collection—unwaveringly solid and thematically focused songcraft shot through with extravagant moments of musical imagination and development.
Balancing earthy simplicity with flights of baroque chamber-folk is much easier said than done, and much credit goes to the team Jones assembled for the sessions. The wizardly keyboard work of Brain Axford provides many of Demons’ sheerest moments of musicality. Bassist Tom Welsch and electric guitarist Elijah Tucker play with moody restraint, melodic imagination, and an on-point sense of style and reference throughout, while producer Dan Davine keeps things grounded on drums. It’s a strange world where a guy you meet on the street in Kingston just happens to have an album like this in the can, a work of startling maturity, depth, and acute musical imagination. It is indeed a strange world.