The fate of the sensitive singer-songwriter is no longer as certain as it was a few years ago, when grunge's gritty overstatement gave way to the kinder, gentler pastures of a VH-1-oriented Prozac honesty and the world listened attentively. Jude (Michael Jude Christodal) is one of the more peculiar outgrowths of the Jewel-ized folk resurgence. While his acoustic-based first-person point-of-view remains largely intact, studio embellishments and playful next-big-thing packaging likewise prevail.
These added elements have placed him in the same league as such critically acclaimed picks-of-the-litter as Ben Folds, Beck and Ani DiFranco. "It sounds like a pretty good place to me," he says. "I've just been kind of waiting for my turn."
On his 1998 debut record, "No One is Really Beautiful," Jude sputters out rounds of high-end self-analysis set atop cultural references as diverse as John Mellencamp and Rick James -- the latter being the title and point-of-reverence for his breakthrough radio hit. Don't be fooled/ don't be flattered/ it's not like you ever mattered/ not to me, he sings. Rick James was the original superfreak. While this line may seem a careless flip leading into the funk of the musical-jam bit that follows, it means much more in the weighty context of the rest of the song -- a criticism of one man's photographic exploitation of women that ends with "one of those girls" taking her own life.
The rest of the material runs the gamut from the emotional drain of Los Angeles, where Jude spent much of his adulthood playing the coffeehouse circuit, to the more personal deconstruction of failed romance. "I would hope the overriding theme to be one of people second-guessing their obsession with physical beauty," he says. But he adds, "They're just songs. Sometimes they will mean something, sometimes they won't."
At its best, "No One is Really Beautiful" conjures images of beatnik fantasies; the songs brush snares and rattle consonants until the innate jazz-of-life resounds. Its poetry is cast through the eyes of the literal present, but the words take on meaning beyond just their definitions. "Some writers focus on they way words sound, some focus on the way they feel, and some on the way they mean," Jude explains. "Early on I was focused on the meaning, but as we've developed I've begun to feel them more."
The result is something of a folk-hop bravado, one that's as attractive as it is sad. And one that seems to stand above the typical criticisms of singer-songwriting digestibility. "It's hard for new music to come up to our expected standards," he says. "With poetry, each time you read it in life it acquires greater meaning. The spaces in between make it more significant. Unlike poetry, though, we hear our great music all the time."