Pop Songs For an Unpredictable Time: Notes on Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s “Switchblade Moon”

Switchblade Moon cover

I still rent DVDs through the mail. There’s usually a lag time of six-to-eight months between the time I add a movie to my queue and its arrival. I always forget what I’ve requested by that point and get a kick out of the small-scale time travel, the reminder of what I was thinking months prior. This took a wrong turn back in March. The first three movies to arrive during the onset of the Covid quarantine were Soylent Green, The Omega Man, and The Andromeda Strain. 


Jasmine Dreame Wagner’s debut EP Switchblade Moon is comprised of elegant, unconventional pop songs, memorable and jazzy. They were recorded at multiple studios over several years with a small army of collaborators. These are factors that sink lesser projects, but the songs are buoyed by a strong sense of confidence that belies the record’s debut status. Wagner has an uncanny ability to fill the frame, crafting panoramic portraits that can be so wide in scope while retaining a sense of intimacy. In that sense, they conjure Kate Bush and Tara Key’s collaborations with Rick Rizzo. Wagner describes the EP as “the first installment of a cycle that explores the sprawling American landscape.” Switchblade Moon is part of a bigger plan.


After the unexpected flurry of post-apocalyptic films, I moved a bunch of heist movies to the front of the queue. The Lavender Hill Mob. Inside Man. Oceans 8. They worked so much better. I relish watching characters orchestrate their circumstances. The mastermind assembles their dream team and unveils the plan that seems so air tight. Then the wheels are in motion. The routines of unsuspecting security guards are timed, locks are picked, cars jump started, and identities falsified. As the team falls into place I inevitably fall for their cause, swept up in their expertise and forgetting the criminal nature of their endeavors.


The A-side opens with the title track, mid-tempo and melancholy. Based on a foundation of piano, bass, and brushes on snare, the sound is dense, but never cluttered thanks to the precision of the arrangements and performances. Wagner has recruited well and brings out the best in the cast. While melodies saturate the foreground, hidden treasures fill the periphery—C. Ryder Cooley’s eerie saw, Chris Barrick’s beautifully blended vibraphone, and Charlie Rauh’s technicolor guitar lines that flow with and gently against the flow of the song. This attention to detail carries over to “All the King’s Horses,” which is as delicate without yielding to pretense. 


Heist movies aren’t about the painting or the gems or whatever awaits in the bank vault. I seldom remember what they were trying to steal. What resonates is the teamwork, the camaraderie, the shared pursuit in the face of the long odds. They never get away with it and it seems everyone accepts this from the outset. Individually there’s an unspoken acceptance of fate. Collectively there’s an implied group hug. Wagner works in that vein too. I’m not saying her aims are nefarious nor is Switchblade Moon fatalistic, but there is a noir-ish vibe that permeates, a gentle, though complicated after hours sense that pulls you in close as things are closing in. Wagner sings “I’m not looking for an answer” and “You’ve go no choice” on the title track. But in the face of those factors she responds “You hold on tight…and I am holding on.” On balance these characters seem strong enough to offer and seek support, to be grounded and vulnerable.

The flipside offers two brief tracks, less than 2:30 each, more fragments than full songs, the choral “White Noise” and the all instrumental “Powder Keg,” which ends far too soon. They seem like notes on things to come, next steps in a larger scheme. 


Jasmine Dreame Wagner
Switchblade Moon 12” EP
National Gold Music 

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