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. Where San Fermin felt like an ornate masterpiece intricately assembled in a lab somewhere, Jackrabbit has the sound of amplified confidence and enhanced group playing that comes from nightly live performance. The songs are still boisterous and triumphant, with tunes like the bounding title track and the tense and driving "Woman in Red" stuffed full of colorful sounds but still stripped down in comparison to the saturated orchestration of the first album. Overdriven drum sounds, acrobatic vocals, understated electronics, and horn sections all equate to an enormous pop sound on album standouts like "Emily" and "Ladies Mary," pushing melody and groove to the forefront of the album, though semi-experimental classical impulses still show up in moments like the theatrical interlude "Ecstatic Thoughts" and the chorally driven "Two Scenes." Tate's low and dusty voice still guides many of the album's storytelling songs. Gruesome imagery in the lyrics of album-opener "The Woods" are delivered in a Bill Callahan-like drawl, juxtaposing horrific descriptions of insects and mythical monstrosities with gentle, patient guitar strums and spare strains of piano. Replacing the female vocals of Lucius is touring vocalist Charlene Kaye, whose distant voice runs between metered verses and edgy, distorting crescendos on slinky tracks like "Philosopher." Still rampant with huge statements and arrangements that bubble over and recede on almost every song, Jackrabbit sees San Fermin sounding less like a studio project and more like a band. The performances are strident and lean, suggesting the players are every bit as invested in delivering the best reading of Ludwig-Leone's complex and often gorgeous songs as he was inspired in creating them.
by Fred Thomas