Nineteen-year-old Molly-Jean Schoen is a junior English major at Michigan State University who picked up guitar at 15 and played in some crappy high school girl bands. At best, Jeans young-girl lyrics are whimsical like diary entries; shes a balladeer of innocence and adolescence whose folk pop is peppered with moments of girl-group bubblegum (So If He), careening garage (February Thaw), country (Run for the Hills) and trad folk (Heavy Heart/Sinking Sun).
She sings in a lovely drone like a young Laura Nyro. There are the Chiffons doo-lang refrains (with Loretta Lucas and Hard Lesson Korin Cox) and clever Love Me Tender and Return To Sender nods. The best of the discs 14 songs is Oxycontin Denim Whore, a self-referencing epistle to rejection that winningly rhymes OxyContin with cocky rotten and guests Eddie Baraneks nimble guitar clucks. The Matt Smith production is so Matt Smith too; the records open, spare and anachronistic sheen whiffs of unbridled nostalgia, as if created in 1965.
But if the discs many languid moments only hint at melancholy, the sadness is sometimes implied by an unsullied or touristy perspective. Shes a boy-troubled college girl who has a paper due on Tuesday, who sings Ask me out/Do I have to spell it out, or a needy, ill-raised chick conned by her abusive boyfriends tender side. The former sounds authentic, the latter smacks of precious fiction; wheres the writerly empathy for the protagonist? What a Way to Die, the pro-booze chestnut by Suzi Quatros old Pleasure Seekers, is wonderfully innocent in Jeans gradual croon. But its an odd cover choice, as miscast as Byrds-era Gram Parsons covering Merle Haggards Life in Prison.
At times, Valley borderlines the kind of bedroom self-importance that is so often Garagebanded into the MySpace nebula; the world doesnt need another singer-songwriter who isnt digging deep, documenting life with the sorrow, the joy and the wisdom from experience. But Jean is young (shes done a handful of gigs), skilled and capable of communicating degrees of emotion. Its a good debut and Jeans bright of promise.
Record release show/20th b-day party is Friday, Oct. 28, at 313.Jac, 624 Brush St., Detroit, 313-962-7067, with Kelly Jean Caldwell.
Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].