The state of California has been played many times on the strings of an acoustic guitar, but it is rare to find a songwriter who can compose an authentically Californian lyric. What remains to be said about the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign or the Malibu coastline? Yet these are the images to which the music industry constantly returns.
Enter Nightjars, the solo project of singer-songwriter Adrian Jade Matias Bell, whose debut EP, Modjeska, dropped May 7. After getting started in the do-it-yourself scenes of Orange County and Los Angeles, Nightjars moved up to the Bay Area and started playing local venues such as 924 Gilman in Berkeley and Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.
Nightjars’ sound is simple yet luminous. Their songs have soft beginnings that build into powerful vocal performances. Their guitar playing ranges from acoustic — replete with beautiful alternate picking chords — to upbeat tracks on the electric guitar accompanied by the bass and drums.
The first pair of songs on the EP offers an instructive contrast. “17” is about coming to terms with being trans and asks the piercing question: “If I broke this body, would they give me one that’s mine?” It features an eerie melody, supernatural motifs and the sound of railroad tracks playing in the background.
“Ready for the House” is an alt-indie bop about the chaos of house parties (“everyone I like is gone / skinny pretty boys are rolling on the lawn”) played on the electric guitar. The song borrows its title from a line in the Vampire Weekend song “Step” and uses electrifying vocal trills to make words such as “pushpins,” “map” and “baby” pop with verve.
At its core, Modjeska is a California parable. The title track is a historical lyric inspired by the life of polish actress Helena Modjeska, who gave up a career on the stage to start a commune in Orange County, California in the late 1800s. Today, the actress is remembered as the namesake of Modjeska Peak, the northern mountain of Orange County’s Saddleback formation, which is featured on the cover of the album — rising majestically above rows and rows of 20th-century real estate development.
Matias Bell has a remarkable gift for metaphor and simile. On “Ready for the House,” they put the mercurial conditions of Northern California weather into words (“the wind’s a dog with three legs”). “Homebody” breaks claustrophobic chord progressions with kinesthetic imagery (“to throw a tantrum like a bride’s bouquet into a crowd”). “Camp Pendleton” puts an existential twist on the powers behind Southern California’s freeway system (“powerful men alive again as freeway signs”).
The EP is equally devoted to developing its setting. References to Oakland, the Silicon Valley, Balboa Island and Camp Pendleton (a military base in San Diego County) transport the listener through a regional cross section of the state. The California that Matias Bell describes is both urban and rural, natural and unnatural, a land of bounty — and inequity. Many will look to the title track to unlock the secrets of Modjeska. It is tempting to buy into the idealized California that the lyrics conjure up, drawing directly from Modjeska’s own writings about “the blue skies of California, among the hills, riding on horseback with a gun over my shoulder.”
But the song that is most revealing of Modjeska’s inner workings is actually “Genesis.” The catchy chorus does little to conceal that this is a work of rage — a rebellion against patriarchy, taxonomy, colonialism and the gender binary.
The simplicity of the instrumentation on Modjeska provides a dynamic tonal background for the historical and societal narratives to take shape. Like all great narrators, Nightjars’ vocal performance is soft and sophisticated when it needs to be, but it is the sheer rhetorical craft behind their songwriting that makes the EP truly sing.