ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
September 8, 2019
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
Will Johnson has been on a tear for ... well, since his early work with Centro-Matic in the 90s. In what seems like quick succession, the serial collaborator presented projects with what's become a familiar litany of like-minded pilgrims: Jason Molina, Vic Chesnutt, Jim James, Jay Farrar, Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, just to name a handful. The commonality in Johnson's free-range artistry has been a dogged pursuit of his muse, an elusive and secretive thing.
What's evident and rewarding in Will Johnson's 6th solo outing, Wire Mountain (Keeled Scales, Sept 27) is that his muse is a moving target. Throughout his band work, his "supergroup" projects and his solo work, there's been a consistent sonic value, even as his music has continuously evolved. His first collection for the Keeled Scales label follows 2017's Hatteras Night A Good Luck Charm, finding Johnson digging deeper into the grit of his electric guitar, as he surrounds himself with a more diverse assemblage of sounds and instrumentation.
It could be argued that the story of Wire Mountain can be traced back further, to 2015's Swan City Vampires. All three sessions were conducted by Britton Beisenherz at his Ramble Creek stronghold in Austin. Each record is to some extent an experiment in manipulating sonic space, and in composing a soundtrack to a certain landscape and people. Like Matthew Genitempo's cover art, the specific elements of Johnson's songs are immediately recognizable, even when delivered through a lens of fuzz and distortion. Also joining him in the studio are Bill Callahan percussionist Thor Harrison, legendary Austin guitarist and songwriter Jon Dee Graham and members of the enigmatic folk act Little Mazarn.
This trilogy of records achieves a balance between intimacy and distance, directness and ambiance. Wire Mountain opens with the crash of guitar and hammered percussion, Johnson's vocals nestled close to the ears like a conspiratorial whisper. In some ways, this is some of the most spacious music he's created as a solo artist, though the persistence of growling electric guitar and heavy percussion muddy the view (in all the best ways). Just over two minutes into "A Carousel Victor", that electric guitar lurches to life, a spark illuminating the otherwise obscured proceedings.
As a writer, Will Johnson tends to be an impressionist rather than a storyteller. He's not using lyrics carelessly, though it's never easy to say what any song is "about". One of the CD's more straightforward cuts, "A Solitary Slip" is reportedly an apology to his spouse for his own shortcomings. A beautiful piece lifted by piano and echoed guitar, Johnson confesses: For all you give to me / I'll fail to repay thee / Clumsy and adrift and / Rarely something graceful. More typical is the heavy cascading drums and stinging guitar of "Cornelius": Now look at us / You and me are stuck amongst the hopers, creeps and fluffers out here in the dust. Johnson's vocals are frequently joined by Lindsey Verrill's, here adding a choral effect new to his songs.
Other songs on Wire Mountain feature banjo, marimba, lap steel or mbira, instruments that rattle around in the relative space created by these sometimes spare arrangements. Songs like "Gasconade" venture into the buzz or hum of an unidentifiable drone beneath Johnson's lyric. A pair of instrumentals mark the aural poles of the sessions. "Chimera" is an electric passage with guttural guitar and a haunting background ambiance, while the album closes on the brighter, more reassuring piano and percussion of "(You Were) Just Barely You". In between is the collection's most accessible cut, the melodic guitar and jazz-leaning chords of "To the Shepherd, To the Lion".
What seems exotic early on establishes itself as more familiar and purposeful with repeated listenings, thoughtful and rewarding work that takes its place alongside years of Will Johnson's other projects. Like Molina and David Bazan and others with whom he's shared a groove, he maintains a mystery from record to record, while building a trust and an intimacy that bring us back with every new iteration. Wire Mountain can be beautiful and chilling, with a wide-open allure of an artist who satisfies at every turn: So when it comes time for our parting / Find the spirit and the force and the light / Let the shadows and moonlight still guide you / With a voice you can trust in the night.
- Avett Brothers, "Bang Bang" Closer Than Together (American, Oct 4)
- Whitney, "Rhododendron" Forever Turned Around (Secretly Canadian, 19)
- Pernice Brothers, "Skinny Jeanne" Spread the Feeling (Ashmont, 19)
- Andrew Combs, "Dry Eyes" Ideal Man (New West, Sep 20)
- Damien Jurado, "Arkansas" Saint Bartlett (Secretly Canadian, 10)
- Joan Shelly, "The Sway" Like the River Loves the Sea (No Quarter, 19)
- North Mississippi Allstars, "Mean Old World (feat. Jason Isbell & Duane Betts)" Up and Rolling (New West, Oct 4)
- Ruston Kelly, "Screaming Infidelities (feat. Chris Carrabba)" Dirt Emo Vol. 1 (Rounder, Oct 11) D
- Kenny Roby & 6 String Drag, "Red" Tired of Feelin' Guilty: 25 Years (Schoolkids, Sep 27) D
- Ana Egge, "Hurt a Little" Is It the Kiss (StorySound, 19)
- The Deer, "Move To Girls" Do No Harm (Keeled Scales, Nov 1) D
- Nathan Salsburg, "New Bold Ruler's Joy" Affirmed (No Quarter, 11)
- Sammy Kay, "Orange Swirl" civil/WAR (Kay, Oct 11) D
- Lillie Mae, "Some Gamble" Other Girls (Third Man, 19)
- Chris Knight, "Almost Daylight" Almost Daylight (Drifters Church, Oct 11)
- Replacements, "Alex Chilton (live)" Dead Man's Pop (Warner, Sep 27)
- Charlie Worsham, "I Hope I'm Stoned (When Jesus Takes Me Home)" single (Warner, 19) D
- Neal Casal, "Real Country Dark" Leaving Traces: Songs 1994-2004 (Fargo, 04)
- Highwomen, "Old Soul" Highwomen (Elektra, 19)
- Charley Crockett, "9 Lb Hammer" The Valley (Son of Davy, Sep 20)
- Pieta Brown, "Bring Me" Freeway (Righteous Babe, Sep 20)
- Daniel Norgren, "I'm a Welder" Buck (Superpuma, 13)
- Paul Cauthen, "Lay Me Down" Room 41 (Lightning Rod, 19)
- Michaela Anne, "I'm Not the Fire" Desert Dove (Yep Roc, Sep 27)
- Vincent Neil Emerson, "7 Come 11" Fried Chicken & Evil Women (la Honda, Sep 13)
- Elliott BROOD, "Whiskey Bottle" Brighter Side: 25th Anniversary Tribute to Uncle Tupelo's No Depression (Reimagine, 2015)
- Tom VandenAvond, "A Good Saloon" Common Law (Hillgrass Bluebilly, 19)
- Cody Jinks, "Same Kind of Crazy As Me" After the Fire (Late August, Oct 11)
- Kill County, "Everything Must Die" Everything Must Die (573668, 19)
- Captain Beefheart, "Call On Me" Safe As Milk (Buddha, 67)
It came to my attention this week that we're nearing what's considered by most the end of the Twenty-teens decade. This means we'll soon be putting a list together of our choices for favorite records of the 2010's. This will be on top of our usual year-end lists for favorite songs and albums of 2019.
This week we added a date for the forthcoming Hailey Whitters EP. The Days will see the light of day on September 13, followed by a full-length next year. Expect a self-titled EP the following week from Oxford, Mississippi's Kate Teague. Kenny Roby of 6 String Drag was fixing to enter the studio with Neal Casal at the helm for a new solo work. Of course, in light of Casal's sudden passing those plan will likely be reworked. In the meantime, September 27 will bring us a nice retrospective on Schoolkids Records: Tired of Feelin' Guilty: 25 Years of Kenny Roby & 6 String Drag. Sofaburn Records is the new home of Kentucky's Daniel Martin Moore. His Never Look Away is slotted for the beginning of Punkin' Month. Rustin Kelly has announced a promising covers EP, Dirt Emo Vol. 1, due wherever music matters on October 11. Kelly's new project will features his take on stuff originally by Blink-182, My Chemical Romance, Dashboard Confessional and more. The great Keeled Scales label has chosen November 1 as the date for their first LP from The Deer, Do No Harm. Save some space on the shelves that same day for the next record from Micky & the Motorcars. Low Anthem has strayed quite a bit since the release of Oh My God Charlie Darwin, but they'll be celebrating the album's 10th Anniversary with a repackaging in November. Also added to this week's Routes & Branches Guide To Feeding Your Monster are 2020 promises from Tami Neilson, Chickaboom, and American Aquarium, Lamentations. You'll see just about everything that's been issued this year in our kind of music by clicking on the link. You can also enjoy this week's ROUTES-cast below: