Best of 2015 – #2
Will Johnson – Swan City Vampires (Undertow Music)
At first blush, a Will Johnson album featuring three instrumentals is cause for concern. For an artist’s artist to relegate almost a quarter of an album to mute divergences hints at trouble. With a number of songs predating 2012’s Scorpion, one could summarily dismiss Swan City Vampires as a stitched-together pinch hit aimed at softening the blow of Centro-matic’s disbanding last year.
Once the fuzzed-out guitar and ominous minor chord piano underlay of opener “Paradise, Basically” conclude and the creaking acoustic “You vs. Off The Cuff” hits its stride, the title juxtaposition of Johnson’s latest solo release begins to gain clarity. Putting listeners on edge is nothing new for Johnson: latter South San Gabriel songs, with players in unscripted roles and layers of crashing, keening sounds, bobbed without a surface, leaving listeners unnerved. Therein was the beauty.
Largely somber in tone, Swan City Vampires treads a similar unease while also recalling Johnson’s 2009 collaboration with Jason Molina (Molina and Johnson) on “Multnomah.” Gone but not forgotten, the unbridled passion of Centro-matic rings loudly on “Call, Call, Call,” the slow build of “Pulleys” with its pedal steel and squalling guitar, and “Nameless, But a Lover,” which ranks among Johnson’s best songs.
Trading fictional songs for more personal narratives, Johnson’s emotions seep through on “(Made Us Feel Like) Kings,” a tear-inducing tribute to his former band, and “The Watchman,” a delicate yet sprawling elegy for his late mother. As for those instrumental passages, they allow the listener — and perhaps Johnson himself — to catch a breath. Urgent and honest, Johnson pays a penance for his art; we, the listeners, are the recipients of his ragged grace. At turns beautiful, haunting and sentimental, Will Johnson continues to explore and press boundaries on Swan City Vampires, the most cohesive statement of his storied career.
Stream/purchase Swan City Vampires on digital format below or on vinyl and CD via Undertow Music.