Jon Sandler – Late Night Champ (2012)

Blessedly unencumbered by a constricting sense of pop decorum, Late Night Champ has a kitchen-sink sense of discovery — as Jon Sandler thrillingly weaves in threads from across a broad musical spectrum.

For instance, there’s “Stars Align,” the album’s transformative lead track: It combines a rambunctious rhythm (as if plucked out of David Byrne’s fertile imagination), a reflective piano signature, and heartbreakingly fragile vocal inside the initial verse that recalls Tim Buckley — all before Sandler gathers himself for a series of barking retorts as the song unfolds. “I’m counting down the days,” he finally says, seemingly shucking off the melancholy for good, “but what’s it for?”

If anything, the episodic “Stars Align” ultimately works as something of a blank-slate template for what’s to come on this refreshingly experimental, billowingly emotional project.

The subsequent “Save, Apologize, Go” finds Sandler emerging with a sense of rugged purpose from this idiosyncratic guitar figure. He adds a sawing string accompaniment, and another stamping beat, on his way through an anthematic narrative very much in the style of Coldplay. Later, he constructs a cutesy tick-tocking structure for a song called “Take My Time,” but not for too long — shifting gears into a low-fi thump and perhaps the most unguarded vocal yet, like a 21st century Freddie Mercury.

Tracks like “Million Different Windows” and “Diamond Miner,” meanwhile, have an itchy propulsion and a growing sense of disregard for artifice: “I believe in saying what you really mean — and I believe you’re great, just not for me.” “Slow Parade” begins with a darkly ominous hum, before Sandler slips into a hard-edged ruminative mood that deftly recalls the wild-hair recriminations of classic Lindsey Buckingham.

If moments like “ME” and the title song don’t make good on the promise of those earlier tunes (feeling, respectively, like a tossed-off piece of retrograde folk and then a jarring attempt at post-modern irony), Sandler rebounds nicely with the sharp and spare “In Control” — an almost unbearably beautiful synth-pop examination of a relationship’s wreckage. “Judy,” too, has a surprisingly effective, shag-carpeted 1970s feel, like a lost Elton John ballad, while “Down On My Luck” grows bravely still before exploding into a stirring arc.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso