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. The saint and festival are both associated with Pamplona, a city forever associated with running bulls. All these elements make for a perfectly named group. The percussion is plodding yet determined like hoofbeats on cobblestones, the instrumentation is celebratory even when it’s somber, and the lyrics touch on themes of guilt and redemption. The only way the music doesn’t match up to its namesake is its lack of any distinguishing Spanish characteristics, but, hey, Beirut’s music doesn’t sound very Lebanese either, does it? All is forgiven.
What’s harder to forgive is how, despite the unique setup of members and Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s undeniable chops as a composer and songwriter, the band struggles to step out from under some pretty obvious shadows. It can be cheap to criticize a band for sounding like another, but the resounding consensus seems to be this one sounds like a slightly brighter version of The National. This applies even when Charlene Kay (the female vocalist) sings but is just completely unavoidable when Allen Tate (the male vocalist) warbles exclusively along the bass clef. Moreover, they’re from Brooklyn, and so are their more established forebears. To their credit, they do use horns and strings more often.
Jackrabbit also doesn’t do much to advance the band’s sound past what was going on with their self-titled debut. If anything, they’ve regressed a bit. The previous record possessed unique flourishes and turns of phrase which designated the band as its own entity no matter how similar their sound was to anything else. This time around, we’re hip to their tricks, so it’s harder to ignore them heading more towards similarity with others rather than a place of their own.
So Ludwig-Leone’s indie rock orchestra could use some work if you can only listen to music that makes you exclaim, “I’ve never heard anything like this!” Given how much music is out there, only enjoying the true jaw-droppers would be silly. Jackrabbit is still a potent and evocative listening experience, even if it strongly recalls memories of even more potent and evocative listening experiences by other bands.
The songs here are all still great at telling stories through lyricism and instrumentation. They crescendo in ways which are still powerful even if they’re also familiar. If you like any foundational indie rock of the past 10 years, from Sufjan Stevens to St. Vincent, this isn’t a record you’re going to turn off. It’s a good record whose main impediment to greatness is still being too busy being influenced to step forward to being influential itself. But this is only round two for San Fermin, and that step could be very easy to make. They’re still a young band and, if they’re looking to make emotionally powerful indie rock, they’ve certainly chosen the right model. Jackrabbit is a powerful statement borrowing a great deal from others’ rhetoric, but we’ve all got to learn somewhere. It’s pretty likely they’ll be the ones with the teaching job soon, just not yet.