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the pathetic caverns - music by artist - Freedy Johnston

eclectic reviews and opinions

Freedy Johnston

Never Home

(Elektra, 1997)

I'd started writing about this record about two weeks ago, when it came out, but a serious work crisis forced me to table the reviews for a bit. In this case, that's kind of a good thing, because in the meantime, I played the record quite a bit, and now it gets a better review. It was a grower.

Until now, I think each new record by Johnston has had his best song ever on it -- the title tracks, in fact, for his previous two records, "Can You Fly?" and, especially, the dark and compelling "This Perfect World." My initial problem with the record was that I didn't find anything here as amazing a piece of songcraft as that number, but after a little more time with it, I think it's a more consistent record overall.

Johnston has an almost literary approach to his songs -- they hint at things left unsaid, ask questions they don't answer, like a painting in which a path winds out of sight. I've actually had discussions with people about the motivations of the narrator in "This Perfect World." Never Home is no exception -- descriptions of these songs could sound like the back-cover blurb on a book of short-stories: "a woman begins to suspect her boyfriend is a unemployed painter wrestles with his worries about his girlfriend's pregnancy..." It would be easy for these tales to seem forced, but Johnston has a gift for pulling emotional resonance out of the situations he writes about, as well as a sure grasp of unadorned pop-rock hooks. The record has a lot of high points, but I'm particularly fond of the opening of "Seventies Girl:"

Down from the attic in your old things
My new girlfriend has a curious streak
Half lit, in the hall
She's like you, twenty years ago
Clothes from a case you'd thrown at me
Orange, yellow, red and chartreuse green

Freedy Johnston (with Barbara Manning)

29 August, 1996

9:30 Club (Washington, DC)

I got to see a whole lot less of Barbara Manning's set than I wanted to, since she was almost done when I showed up around 9:30. She had another guitar player along -- sorry, I didn't catch his name -- who did pretty well, despite the fact that he usually had to consult a cheat sheet before beginnng to play a song. (Barbara explained that they'd been rehearsing for something under a week).

The dual electric guitar arrangements usually involved two distinct guitar parts, and was interesting, if a little on the trebly side. It seemed a pretty career-spanning set -- some San Francisco Seals material was aired, as well as older numbers like "Lately I Keep Scissors," and some songs I didn't recognize.

Freedy on Barbara's set: "She would have been awesome with a rhythm section," with which I tend to agree, and: "Of course, she was awesome without one," with which I don't agree. But worthwhile, to be sure -- Barbara Manning is a strong writer and the settings worked pretty well for the songs, although I think I would have preferred full band arrangements.

The last time I saw Freedy Johnston was at the old 9:30 club, on my 29th birthday. For me, that show was a transcendent rock'n'roll experience of the kind that's hard to top. The band walked straight down the knife edge that balanced the considerable emotional intensity of Johnston's singing with super-tight performance.

This gig certainly didn't top that one -- it was merely good, not great.

Johnston is a somewhat erratic songwriter. When he's good, as on "This Perfect World" a harrowing song in which a man on death row confronts the daughter of the wife he killed, he's very good indeed -- he finds a kernel of emotional truth in the situation which resonates deeply, even though I've got no way to personally relate to the situation he's singing about. When he's not so good, as on "Lover's Rock" an obvious little number about a romantic double-suicide, he can be merely trite. Of the 5 or 6 songs from his just-completed new album (due January-ish) the bulk seemed to fall in the latter category, although it's hard to judge the merits of a lyric based on hearing it once at club volume. Still, he's a compelling singer, even on his weaker material, and the band is solid.

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