Freedy Johnston – Rain on the City
Freedy Johnston opens his new album, his first new material since 2001’s Right Between the Promises, with a ukulele strum and a lyric that searches optimistically for answers. The quality of his voice against the stripped-down arrangement highlights the arresting, bell-like clarity of his tone, and the lyric playfully strides between a literal ode to a found coin and a metaphorical hand outstretched to a lost girl. Producer Richard McLaurin leavens the ukulele’s chipper tone with more quizzical and unsure dashes of lap steel and Hammond B3. The arrangement’s subtlety is a perfect balance to the lyrics’ provocative queries. The same vocal quality cuts through the electric arrangement of “Venus is Her Name” as Johnston hits and holds piercing country-tinged notes.
Johnston has returned to the character and scene studies that attracted fans to his earliest works. “Rain on the City” animates rain as a character and evokes the painterly way that Paul Simon projected human emotion on observed imagery, and the tearful goodbye of “Central Station” couches its discomfort in keen observations of worn station details substituting for eye contact. The album isn’t all texture and mood, however, as Johnston writes lyrics of romantic strife and McLaurin happily indulges the songwriter’s need to rock. The power-chords and strings of “Don’t Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl” may remind you of power-pop artists like Adam Schmitt or the Smithereens, and Johnston sings with open-throated abandon on “Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande” as the band bashes and twangs.
Stretching out, the baion beat of “The Other Side of Love” signals the sort of heartbreak common to early ‘60s productions by Leiber & Stoller and Phil Spector, but here it’s dressed in rootsier instrumentation; “The Kind of Love We’re In” floats along on a gentle bossa nova rhythm. The closing “What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight” suggests a father’s entreaty to a son deeply troubled by his mother’s passing, but Johnston’s lyrics are sufficiently open-ended to leave room for personal interpretation. The album’s catchy melodies ease you aboard, and the rich threads of loss, loneliness and meandering hope invite you to make these songs you own.