After the low profile release of Trouble Tree in 1990 (it's on my wish list), Freedy Johnston’s (supposedly significantly better) second album begins thusly: “well I sold the dirt to feed the band,” and this autobiographical anecdote about trying to sell his family farm in order to finance this album and chase his rock n’ roll dream demonstrates Johnston’s commitment to the cause. A firm critic favorite, Johnston crafts highly literate stories that are filled with believable characters, and he matches their trials and tribulations to a sometimes repetitive but always catchy and rewardingly melodic brand of rootsy rock n’ roll. Johnston possesses a twangy Midwestern voice that’s capable of gritty emotion but which can also switch to a beautiful higher range, and though it might take a little getting used to his imperfect vocals effectively brings across his vivid vignettes. Thirteen songs strong, these sad and lonely narratives are further enriched by their cumulative power, though the harder hitting numbers generally lack the intense overall impact of the slower songs. It's on these slower meditations (“Tearing Down This Place,” “The Lucky One,” “Can You Fly,” “The Mortician’s Daughter,” “Down In Love,” “We Will Shine”) that, backed by other stellar low key musicians such as Kevin Salem, Chris Stamey, Marshall Crenshaw, and Syd Straw (with whom Freedy duets on "Down In Love"), Johnston’s songs truly take flight. Note: The six-song Unlucky EP followed in 1993 (it's also on my wish list).
This Perfect World (Elektra ‘94) Rating: A
On his major label debut, Johnston sticks to his strengths by forsaking his attempts at rocking out in favor of sweetly singable ballads. With This Perfect World, Johnston continues his budding stature as a major singer-songwriter, as he crafts deliciously delicate folk-rock melodies that showcase an increasingly improved and often quite exquisite singing voice. The album features twelve superb songs that have simple but catchy pop hooks, and producer Butch Vig provides a rich sonic backdrop for Johnston’s polished songs to come across with a glossy shine. Although many of the songs are musically gorgeous and easy going, the lyrics often tell a far darker story, and even more than his music it is Johnston’s first-rate storytelling skills that most moves me. For example, “Evie’s Tears” and “Evie’s Garden” deal with a rape victim’s fear of intimacy, the masterful title track matches a lovely melody to murderous lyrics (“last time I was here they found her in the lake”), and “Two Lovers Stop” has a sprightly melody that makes its suicide denouement (“two lovers stop their hearts better than to be apart”) all the more devastating. Escaping to the big city (New York City) and getting lost within its dark bowels forms the core of several songs (not surprising coming from a transplanted Kansan), and the loss of love and subsequent difficulties in dealing with rejection (great lyric: “suddenly I’m in Herald Square, looking at the crowd your face is everywhere”) are other common themes addressed. This Perfect World may lack the overall variety and energy of the acclaimed Can You Fly, but it’s the album I usually turn to whenever I need a Freedy fix. Song that should've been a smash hit in a perfect world: “Bad Reputation.”
Never Home (Elektra’ 97) Rating: A-
Although there’s nothing here as instantly ingratiating as the best songs on This Perfect World, these simple, almost boring at first songs likewise sneak up on you over time. Tracks such as “I’m Not Hypnotized,” “Gone To See The Fire,” and “Something’s Out There” are deceptively catchy, and there’s plenty of high quality tough (“On The Way Out,” “One More Thing To Break”) and tender (“Western Sky,” “You Get Me Lost”) material. The album features more rock guitar and at times returns to the rootsier sound of Can You Fly, but as usual it is Johnston’s vividly drawn scenes and characters that steal the show. For example, “On The Way Out” features a memorable stalemate between a store owner and a prospective thief, “Western Sky” is about a young pilot who refuses to fly after his father dies in a plane crash, “Gone To See The Fire” tells the tale of a boyfriend/arsonist “she thought she knew well,” and “If It’s True” is about a young couple trying to cope with an unplanned pregnancy. Unhealthy relationships and lost loves are also (as usual) examined, and Johnston’s plaintive, understated music (produced by Danny Kortchmar) is always warmly inviting. Another thing I like about Johnston is that his lyrics are rarely obvious; he makes his listeners think and keeps them on their toes, as his songs can often be interpreted in different ways. Granted, few of these plainly presented and somewhat repetitive songs stand out at first, but after awhile they're like 11 old friends who you're always glad to spend some quality time with.
Blue Days Black Nights (Elektra ’99) Rating: B+
Named after a line in ELO’s classic ballad “Telephone Line” (one of my all-time favorite songs), a line from “Depending On The Night” sums up Blue Days Black Nights: “together and then left alone, that’s the way the story goes.” My guess is that Freedy’s been dumped and he’s trying (unsuccessfully) to forget about her, ‘cause most of these sad breakup songs feature haunting reminisces about former flames. And though he’s still capable of evocative lyrical passages like “I wonder who knows if anyone knows where lovers go in their sleep, and what if they meet, dream on the same street, but she passes obliviously,” this is a pretty depressing album overall. Though Johnston has always been an artist who rewards repeat plays, and again that's the case here, much of the moody music is pretty but kind of comes and goes, as the album could use a few more easily graspable hooks. Then again, Freedy is incapable of writing a bad song let alone making a bad album, and these short stories set to music tell typically gripping tales, as lines like “when I wake up I forget, put my arm across the bed” pull at your heartstrings and linger in your mind. Fortunately, “Underwater Life,” “The Farthest Life,” “While I Wait For You,” “Changed Your Mind,” and “Until The Sun Comes Back Again” are as immediate and as catchy as Johnston’s best work (about half the album, in other words), but several pleasantly nondescript entries and the repetitive theme of the album (evident in lines like “two weeks now and you’re still gone”) makes Johnston’s most personal statement to date slightly less compelling than usual.
Right Between The Promises (Elektra '01) Rating: B+
Freedy Johnston is one of the finest singer songwriters of the past decade, and Right Between The Promises is another diverse and consistently enjoyable collection. Johnston has long been one of the best lyricists around, and though these songs are filled with his usual quirky characters and scene setting imagery (“sunrise on the tower clock, backstreets still wet with rain”), it's the quality of Johnston’s music that distinguishes his really good albums from his merely good ones. Unsurprisingly, this one is a clear notch below earlier peaks such as Can You Fly and This Perfect World, but the music on Right Between The Promises is still consistently accomplished throughout. “Broken Mirror” starts things off with a musically light and melodic album opener before Freedy let’s ‘er rip on “Waste Your Time,” his best rocker in some time (Johnston usually opts for subtle understatement over immediate excitement). A surprising cover of Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows” is then delivered with a perfect pop pitch and without a trace of irony (call it a "guilty pleasure" if you must), and though the laid back “That’s Alright With Me” has too much of a James Taylor, West Coast type of vibe, it’s still a smoothly enjoyable listen overall. The album then branches out on “Radio For Heartache,” a sparse banjo-led story about a riverside busybody, while “Back To My Machine” is a somewhat dissonant tale with surprisingly silly lyrics (about a robot!). Neither song is a highlight, in fact both seem a bit forced, but it's good to see Johnston stretching out a bit. Elsewhere, “Arriving On A Train” takes listeners on an evocative ride, while “Save Yourself, City Girl” delivers a loping shuffle beat along with some pragmatic advice. Finally, “Anyone” is pretty catchy and contains some cool rhymes before the album fades out with the appropriately dreamy “In My Dream.” Throughout this 38-minute album Johnston adds tasteful layers of instrumentation (violin, cello, flute), and his easy-going vocals and inviting melodies makes this album instantly likeable. It's not quite loveable, as this perpetual cult artist still requires repeat plays and a devoted attention to lyrical detail for a full appreciation. However, on Right Between The Promises this thinking man’s craftsman has given listeners a lot to chew on musically as well as lyrically, making for another fine album that I feel has been underrated by both fans and critics alike.
Rain On The City (Bar/None '10) Rating: A-
Although he released an album of 4-track demos (The Way I Were: 4-Track Demos 1986-1992), a live album (Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop), and an album of cover songs (My Favorite Waste of Time) over the last decade, this is Freedy Johnston's first album of new material in nine years. I'm not sure what took so long, and given that he's back on Bar/None I suspect it has as much to do with business entanglements as musical reasons, but whatever the reason it's sure good to have him back, as Rain On The City is a typically crafty and accomplished album that occupies something of a middle ground between the downer that was Blue Days Black Nights and the more upbeat Straight Between The Promises. This album has a nice mix of sharp, short electric rockers ("Livin' Too Close To The Rio Grande," "It's Gonna Get Back To You"), catchy power poppers ("Don't Fall In Love With A Lonely Girl" and "The Other Side Of Love," both highlights), and ballads (the utterly gorgeous title track, the sad but boring "Central Station," and the very good low-key closer "What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight"), and though after nine years I can see some people being disappointed that this album merely delivers more of the same consistent high quality stuff (it lacks revelations and at times excitement), those who appreciate modest yet melodic songs and vivid story-based songwriting would do well to pick this album up. Simply put, then or now, nobody writes songs quite like Freedy Johnson, who remains an American original; songs such "Pretty Penny" (about a lonely penny on the sidewalk), "Venus Is Her Name" (about meeting an old flame on an airplane), and "Livin' Too Close To The Rio Grande" (quote: "Between the wife and the ex and government, I never met a dollar that wasn't spent") attest that Freedy hasn't lost his knack for writing about eccentric topics, creating memorable scenes, and delivering quotable lines. Musically, with help from producer Richard McLaurin, the album delivers enough unexpected musical embellishments to keep things interesting, such as the breezy trumpets on "The Devil Raises His Own" and "What You Can't See, You Cannot Fight," or the moody keyboards on "The Other Side Of Love" and "The Kind Of Love We're In," the latter a lightly melodic (if overly repetitive) bossa nova flavored track that's unlike any other Freedy song I can think of. Throughout the album Freedy is in fine voice, and like most of his albums this one has grown on me the more I get to know it. It's a shame that he seems to have such a low profile these days, because there aren't too many modern day singer-songwriters in his league, and Rain On The City is yet another high quality release that should only add to his good reputation.
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