Jandek is an American Blues/Outsider Music/Who Knows artist. Officially "Jandek" is the name of an ongoing music project, but it's very clearly the work of a specific singer-songwriter, who is usually colloquially called Jandek, though his actual name appears to be Sterling Richard Smith.
Jandek's musical style is...difficult to explain, at best. He often plays unaccompanied (though other singers and even a full band are not unheard of), strumming or picking his guitar in an unpredictable fashion (with the guitar often tuned to a tuning of his devising), while he half-sings/half-speaks seemingly improvised tuneless melodies full of opaque, sometimes troubling lyrics. This rather abstract approach to music would already ensure that Jandek would be destined to appeal to a very selective audience, but add his being a Reclusive Artist who makes Thomas Pynchon look like an Attention Whore, with a Mysterious Past to boot, and you have the ingredients of a one-of-a-kind Cult Classic.
Jandek's albums are not for sale in record stores, and don't even bother with streaming services. The only ways to purchase them are via money order through Corwood Industries in Houston, Texas, and more recently, online at the official Corwood Industries website. Corwood Industries' back catalog consists entirely of Jandek's prodigious discography — over 100 albums and counting. Corwood's very minimalist website is basically the only official label promotion that has ever been given to Jandek's music. Interviews are few, far between, and not very forthcoming. Radio airplay is almost nil, except for the weekly hour-long show Time for Jandek, originating on KRVS, an NPR affiliate in Lafayette, Louisiana.
To get a further look into the bizarre phenomenon of the Jandek catalog, check out 2003 documentary Jandek on Corwood, featuring interviews with various fans and critics of Jandek's music. It was made by filmmaker Chad Freidrichs, with assistance from "the representative of Corwood Industries" — as in, the only way the man behind Jandek will refer to himself in public. The representative does not appear in the documentary (natch) except for album covers and audio from the only phone interview he'd ever done in his career. Still, he apparently gave his full authorization and permission to use snippets of his music.
After a quarter-century of recording, the representative made his live debut in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2004, and has had a sparse touring schedule ever since. All of this contributes to the mystique, and while Jandek's following is small, it is rabid.
"YOU PAINTED YOUR TROPES":
- Alternative Rock: Could be considered an Unbuilt Trope — the extremely idiosyncratic guitar sound employed on Jandek records, while still not any kind of conventional listening, proved to be somewhat prescient upon the alt-rock explosion of the early 90s. Jandek is also an early adopter of the Perishing Alt-Rock Voice.
- Anonymous Band: The label, Corwood Industries, presents the music as if it were the creation of an anonymous collective. The guy who shows up to play live shows, sometimes with non-anonymous locally-recruited backing musicians, is referred to as "A Representative of Corwood Industries". All evidence points to Jandek being Sterling Smith, who is also the sole employee of Corwood.
- Call-Back: Many subtle references to earlier works in later works. One example: Ready for the House has a picture of a chair beside a window on the cover. His fourth album is called Chair Beside a Window.
- Careful with That Axe: He's capable of some truly unhinged screams. "You Painted Your Teeth" is a good example of this.
- Darker and Edgier: As they span the decades, his already-dark albums only manage to get bleaker, ESPECIALLY the A Cappella ones...
- Death Glare: Sometimes he appears on album covers sporting one of these. 1982's Six And Six is an infamous example, and then there's 2004's The Door Behind, the cover of which sported a death glare plus a heretofore unseen beard.
- Dreadful Musician: Subverted. Early press coverage of Jandek tended to paint him as this, with one reviewer writing "may he never tune his guitar!" In one of his only interviews, Jandek refuted this, saying that he had received musical training and did indeed tune his guitar (albeit to unorthodox open tunings).
- Houston: According to Google Maps, Corwood Industries is off Houston's major thoroughfare of Memorial, though as with all things Jandek, this is open to interpretation.
- I Am the Band: The first album, Ready for the House, was originally credited to The Units, despite clearly not being performed by a full band; Jandek came about as a name because there turned out to already be a band called The Units. Jandek albums never include credits in the liner notes, but there are sometimes other musicians featured on songs, though at times he's also overdubbed additional parts himself instead.
- Idiosyncratic Cover Art: Most Jandek album covers are photographs taken of his face.
- Almost all album art from his 'early' period (1978 - 1992) are black-and-white images. (With one notable exception being his debut, Ready For The House.)
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: His live albums all use the strict titling convention of "name of the city where the show was" + "day of the week when it happened" (e.g. Glasgow Sunday, Manhattan Tuesday, Seattle Friday).
- Line-of-Sight Name: In an unauthorized interview, he mentioned that when he needed to come up with a new name for his recording project, he happened to speak on the phone with someone named Decker during the month of January.
- Longest Song Goes Last:
- 1992's Lost Cause is pretty sedate, by Jandek standards, until the final song, "The Electric End," comes around. It's a 19-minute instrumental freak-out with jagged guitar, uncoordinated drums and piercing feedback coming in periodically.
- 1999's The Beginning ends with the Title Track, which clocks in at over 15 minutes. It's also an instrumental freak-out, but this time confined to a single piano.
- Lyrical Dissonance: On paper, "Governor Rhodes" looks like a bright hippie ballad exhorting us to "celebrate our love" and "celebrate our magic". Let's just say the music that goes along with it is a wee bit disturbing.
- Minimalistic Cover Art: Besides all being a Textless Album Cover, Jandek's covers are always just simple, unadorned photographs. The vast majority are just pictures of the artist at numerous points in his life (including childhood photos). The remainder are either oddly composed still-lifes, or travel snapshots of various landmarks (all presumably taken by Jandek).
- Mysterious Past: Next to nothing is known of Jandek's past. In a rare phone interview with Songs in The Key of Z writer Irwin Chusid, he hinted at having lived in New York at some point, and having written seven novels...which he burned after they were rejected by Random House.
- No Ending: His debut album, Ready For The House, ends with the song 'European Jewel (Incomplete)' - which is, as it turns out, literally incomplete. Four and a half minutes in, while Jandek is singing the lyric 'Just a shaking shake', the song just... cuts off, mid-sentence. This manages to end an already deeply unsettling album on an even more unsettling note.
- However, we do get to hear a complete version of 'European Jewel' on Jandek's 1982 album, Chair Beside a Window.
- Non-Appearing Title: Some songs have them, and, as expected, the relation of the title to the lyrics can be very opaque. "Governor Rhodes" seems to be named after Jim Rhodes, the Ohio governor who sent National Guard troops to Kent State University in 1970 (where they killed four students during a demonstration), which implies a Protest Song, but the lyrics read more like some sort of Neo-Pagan ritual chant.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Several of his album covers have◊ this◊ effect◊.
- Outsider Music: Unconventional, uncommercial sound? Check. Naive, even guileless demeanor? Check. Insanely obscure? Double check. A textbook example, really.
- Perishing Alt-Rock Voice: The predominant vocal style, though there can be some rather jarring screaming too.
- Step Up to the Microphone:
- There have been other, unidentified singers on certain songs. One of them is unofficially known as "Nancy" because she was heard on a song titled "Nancy Sings".
- In the last few years a young woman named Sheila Smith (exact relationship to Sterling Smith unclear) has joined the Corwood Representative in live shows, taking on much of the lead vocal work.
- Textless Album Cover: Every single Jandek album has just a photo on the front cover, minus any text. The only semi-exception is St. Louis Friday, which shows a photo of Jandek, seemingly from The '60s, holding a picket sign that says "STAMP OUT REALITY".
- Un-Installment: The debut album Ready for the House was given the catalog number Corwood 0739, falsely implying that Corwood had already released hundreds of albums. But all the albums since have been numbered in sequence from 0739.
- Word Salad Lyrics: The basic style of Jandek lyrics, starting with the very first lines from his first album:"I got a vision of a teenage daughterWho's growin' up Naked in the AfternoonI know a brother, who's close to his motherAnd stays out late in the evening timeI keep repeating, it takes a beatingTo grow up Naked in the Afternoon"