Jessy Bell Smith has a magical lilt in her voice, and “John Mouse” is a magical, lilting song, all forward momentum and friendly, recycling melody. Verse and chorus are barely distinguishable as Smith, once set in motion, seems not to want to break the spell of this odd, oblique little tale. A mouse has been killed, to begin with. The narrator seems conflicted about it. After that, little is unambiguous, lyrically.
Musically, on the other hand, “John Mouse” is steadfast and definitive, with the feeling of a olden-days folk ballad re-booted by a traveling-carnival rock band with more interest in horns and tooting keyboards than electric guitars. There in the midst of the song’s light-footed élan, Smith manages to convey the sensibility of both ringmaster and empath, laying an almost poignant tenderness atop her “Step right up!” confidence.
Note by the way that it’s rare for a song to have both this trustworthy a backbeat and this offbeat an arrangement. When the backbeat disappears, starting at 2:09, the song’s idiosyncratic pith comes more fully into focus. This is fun in its own way but when the drumming returns 30 seconds later is when she really owns you. I think there’s a lesson in that but I’m not exactly sure what it is.
A singer/songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, Jessy Bell Smith has also somewhat recently become a member of the veteran Toronto band The Skydiggers. “John Mouse” is from the album The Town, released at the end of February via Choose My Music, a British music blog with a small, associated record label. The album was a limited-edition CD and appears now to be sold out; you can check out two other songs via Bandcamp, and download one of them via SoundCloud, thanks to the Guelph-based Missed Connection Records. Smith’s one previous release appears to have been a very lo-fi EP called Tiny Lights, in 2004. Two of those songs landed on this finally-recorded album. Thanks to the record label for the MP3. Thanks to Lauren Laverne for the tip.