His name is Jandek. His voice is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s. His music almost sounds like Buckley’s too—that is if Jeff were scoring a horror film or a ghost story. In his twenty-five year music career, Jandek has released thirty-two albums and only given one interview to John Trubee in 1985 for an article in Spin Magazine. Chad Freidrichs’s documentary “Jandek on Corwood” is a conversation with music critics, radio personalities, and record collectors that aims to celebrate and make sense of this reclusive artist.
When you hear Jandek’s music playing at the beginning of the documentary, you’ll experience a sensation like a chill sweeping against your skin. Freidrichs pairs Jandek’s song with foggy images of lonely paths in forests and seemingly abandoned farmhouses. After giving you a sample of the artist’s work to allow you to form an initial impression, the documentary incorporates the analyses of individuals who clearly have an appreciation for unconventional music. Brooks Martin, for instance, a DJ at KAOS Evergreen State College says that it’s as if Jandek just picks up a guitar, play around with a couple chords, and starts singing in a stream of consciousness manner. Radio personality DJ Demento brings up the fact that Jandek’s songs contain “something vaguely recognizable as melody,” and “it’s not something your average consumer would describe as music.” Indeed, these songs don’t “sound” like they have much if any melody at all.
The purpose of the documentary isn’t to attack your aural senses or even to encourage you to give obscure, eccentric music a second chance. Instead, it makes you think about what you consider to be music vs. noise or good music vs. bad music. Ben Edmonds, station manager at WHPK at the University of Chicago, explains that Jandek’s music causes one to evaluate what qualifies as certain types of music or if it’s good. Music critic Byron Coley nails it when he offers the idea that “you could play” Jandek’s music “for somebody and people will say…’anybody could do this’… as soon as people start to make any kind of break from representational art anywhere… you can’t argue about the quality of technique,…you have to start saying ‘this has a theoretical presence…and an intellectual basis for it that has nothing to do with… a measurable technique.” Significantly, “there’s art that’s going on here that’s not representational, and it’s not supposed to be beautiful, and it’s not supposed to be attuned to any kind of standard in a commercial sense.”
Nils Bernstein, a publicist for Matador Records, places Jandek’s work in an industrial and historical context. He points out that Jandek’s first record “Ready for the House” came out in 1978, immediately after the punk-rock movement. As a result, people may have been more receptive to Jandek’s music. He made music the he liked. He wasn’t concerned about what anybody else thought. He wanted to play on a strangely tuned guitar and stay out of any kind of spotlight. Ironically, because there was so little information about him, people who heard and liked his stuff became very curious about him.
“Jandek on Corwood” consists of two parts. Part I discusses the musician’s music as well as the artist’s elusiveness. There’s a mailing address on the backs of the records instructing people to send inquiries to Corwood Industries in Houston, Texas. Byron Coley adds that the process of sending to and receiving correspondence from Corwood leaves you feeling like you’re communicating with a secret agent. The appeal of this kind of agent is that you only know what you need to know. In this case, the less you know, the more you want to know. Freidrichs almost puts his documentary together according to this idea, but his film is too informative. The mystery behind Jandek is still intact at the end of the eighty-eight minute-long film, but it’s diminished substantially because you feel like you know too much.