Emerging from the same early ’00s post-punk, folk-forward underground that carried Tim Kasher and Conor Oberst from moderate to fairly massive critical successes, Neva Dinova’s Jake Bellows has always seemed slightly out of step. His opuses arrive needing to be wrung out for all their tear-heavy sentiments, and his open affinities for stark acoustic guitars and decidedly less edgy instrumentation made Neva Dinova merely a very good project in what Jenny Lewis famously described as Omaha’s “booming music scene.”
But in 2011, after 15 years and five full-lengths, Bellows fled his hometown of Omaha and landed in Los Angeles with a slew of demos. New Ocean captures a distinct screenshot of Bellows’ many moods, made plain in equal measure by satisfyingly upbeat odes of longing, country-tinged rockers and pensive acoustic ballads in his best work since Neva Dinova’s 2008 high watermark, You May Already be Dreaming.
Bellows’ intimate lyricism is given new gravity thanks to a shuffle-style musical ro-sham-bo, the autonomous bard baring his soul regardless of whether he’s gnashing his teeth or cooing whispery melodies like a range-camped cowboy. The gorgeous “I Know You” swoons under a bossa nova beat, Bellows clinging to the images of the film reel of his dreams of a girl he knows “in her makeup” and “with no clothes on.” Similarly, the sparsely tinseled “I Can’t Wait” hits your warm-and-fuzzies with easy acoustic plucking and beautifully reasoned notions of respect for a significant other in life after love. To an unknown recipient, Bellows sings, “If there is ever another man, just come and see me as best you can/You’re always in my heart, you’re always in my plan/I can’t wait to see the day I hold your face between my hands.”
Gooey as it sounds—and some of it sounds pretty gooey—New Ocean is sentimental in every good way possible. Bellows’ songwriting, while not necessarily highly evolved technically from the output of Neva Dinova, is grounded in an inherent wisdom that can only come from having been writing songs pretty much nonstop for over 15 years. He actually nearly quit music altogether after fleeing Omaha for Los Angeles, landing a job installing sliding-glass doors.
“All Right Now,” the album’s second track, utilizes Bellows’ innate power of hollering driving choruses over a suspiciously sanguine refrain of “I’ve been running from the sun and headed west, and I ran out of land…/I’m not afraid to drown/It’s all right now that you reached out.” Just as quickly, Bellows hangs a louie on the next tune, “You and Me”—a slow-burning near-ballad that finds his observational instincts in full force as he watches the clouds, rain and wind outside, asking, “Who would you rather I was? The kind that up and left or the kind that can’t give up?” This song, if only for the purposes of choosing one that tantalizes your emotive tom-tom heart the most, is insufferably good, and despite its tortoise-like propelment, ought to seal the deal for most admirers of heart-wrenching romanticism.
It’s clear after a listen to the first song that Bellows’ brief sidestep into blue-collar anonymity was not where he belonged. In fact, New Ocean sounds like a surging rebirth to one of underground rock’s most overlooked songwriters. Welcome back.