Dave Johnson makes records infrequently, with care and usually with a purpose. So, what have we got here?
In common with Dave Johnson’s two excellent previous records (Leavin’ Time and On a Clear Day) this collection is a well-produced set with a beautiful, generous sound. Some of the characteristic Johnson flourishes are there, the close harmony, the use of violin, piano, and Dave’s signature mandolin as part of the band in support of his distinctive, everyday kind of voice.
Go here to Dave’s website to hear some of the new tracks and catch the videos.
There is a range of styles across the eight songs, rock ballads, rocked up bluegrass, reggae. The percussion hits a bit harder than in the previous outings. It was made at Elliott Smith’s studio. Elliot is great drummer. Maybe that has something to do with it. All in all, it is a good, energetic record to listen to. It works when you pay attention. It works when you are in the next room.
Seven of the eight songs deal with big themes, and Dave is usually looking outwards, observing. Descriptions of characters struggling with demons, characters who might have stumbled out of one of Tim Winton’s books, displaced, raw. Some of the songs written as second person conversations. Others are essays and inventories of wider social demons. It is big hearted, genuine, and tough minded. In a world of narcissistic fluff and confected emotion, I love his ambition.
Of the songs, “Let the Anger Go” works really well. Slow, splendidly melodic, and beautifully done. Dave’s voice, backed with female harmony, is at its most expressive and musical in this piece, which is a conversation, an observation, and a counsel around a character in pain and bereft. The accompaniment is poised, well composed. It all works and gets better with repeated listening, which is the test for me.
“Inequality Boulevard” is sonically in the same territory, but a bare and confronting switch between a story of everyday tragedy and the structurally protected amorality that surrounds wealth and power. Musically well done, and a gutsy piece of art.
“Fear and Anxiety”, “Nauru”, “Rage” “Euphoria” and “Paralysis Tango” are strong social commentary. These kinds of songs can be hard work, and the challenge is to let the listener’s imagination do the work and resist the temptation to lecture or spell it out. At the same time, Dave has something to say, and he isn’t apologising for saying it. I think overall, the balance is found.
Nauru is told more in sorrow than in anger and gets through because it blends the issue and the personal story, and because it is beautifully done.
Rage is upbeat and asks the question “is there anything left that you would rage to defend”. In other words, “what do Australians even stand for?”. Good question.
Fear and Anxiety is pretty straight-forward. Sonically it uses electronic noise to get under your skin and a chord structure programmed for dread.
Paralysis Tango isn’t a tango as such. Rather, it is a slick, countryfied, bluegrassy romp overlaid with a satirical, wide-ranging commentary on the policy gridlock induced by vested interests, market forces and short-term politics. All that is a lot more fun than it sounds, especially if you love this sound, which a lot of folks do. It is pretty hard to argue with and it moves right along.
Euphoria cleverly explores issues about what happens when individuals, communities and nations lose the ability to stay connected to reality in a desperate rush to believe what they want to believe and to stay “up” amid competing ideologies. Musically, punchy; a three-minute sparring round.
The last song “Golden Moon” is a favourite. This is a gentle reggae homage to the pull and restorative power of of the Kimberley, a more personal theme, much more “just for the hell of it” with an infectious chorus and a really musical mandolin solo. What is not to like?
Good art. This record is definitely worth your time.
And you can buy it right here on Bandcamp, the performing artists’ best recording friend.
* By Bill Lawrie* Along with Claire Moodie, Bill Lawrie is the co-author of Freo Groove – Musicians of Fremantle – UWAP 2018. From Norm Wrightson’s 1940’s dance band to Stella Donnelly, Freo Groove traces the connections between several generations of musicians and the town. Available from New Edition, Kate and Abel, and the Fremantle Arts Centre and online from University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Also – Follow Freo Groove on Instagram @freogroove
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By Bill Lawrie