Local Record Review: Barrett Johnson

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New Jerusalem

It's always been acknowledged, sometimes off-handedly, that the continuing impact of sensitive pop/rock by solo male musicians is something that not merely survives, but also thrives. That may seem obvious, but the continuum that stretches from James Taylor to Dan Fogelberg through to Dave Matthews and John Mayer–and now to Amos Lee, who just scored a No. 1 album–is as much a part of the story as punk and hip-hop and metal.


But as the names mentioned show–and as Orange County's Barrett Johnson demonstrates on his new album, the follow-up to his debut, In Case I Went Missing–there's no one sonic formula in this sphere. It's all in what you bring to the table, and Johnson, backed by a variety of friends and collaborators, isn't so much stereotypical adult contemporary as contemplative rumble. If anything, New Jerusalem makes a good case for Johnson as a new Davíd Garza, the Texas-born and -raised musician whose sweet falsetto and easy skill, not to mention the ability to range from soft folk to soul croon to full-bodied rock stomp, unfortunately remains one of America's best-kept secrets.
Johnson's range often turns up song for song–the title track is a near-epic wallop toward the end, while “San Francisco Mouth” takes a calmer, easier swing. “Month of Sundays” begins with acoustic guitar before full-pedal steel kicks in, turning it into something Gram Parsons might well have loved. Jorgen Ingmar's drumming might be the secret weapon throughout–full-bodied, never hesitant, but never crushing either. 
Johnson's high yet never stretched or piercing voice is the calm center from start to finish, and if the themes of reflection, love, loss and spirit are familiar, he has a knack for imagery that sticks. When you can pull off a song called “4 AM Blues” as a full-on soul/gospel punch, it's a sign you have something on your own terms.
The first three songs from New Jerusalem can be heard via Johnson's Myspace site. The album release is this Sunday at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles.

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