ROUTES & BRANCHES
featuring the very best of americana, alt.country and roots music
March 7, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
The songs of Will Johnson's new album epitomize everything I want Routes & Branches to sound like. They're beautiful, crunchy, evocative, enigmatic. For years he has explored his louder, mightier tendencies with Centro-matic and his more esoteric, introverted ideas with South San Gabriel. Johnson has collaborated with artists from Jason Molina to David Bazan. He has been a Monster of Folk and has joined Jay Farrar, Anders Parker and Jim James in the shadow of Woody Guthrie for New Multitudes. With his first solo project since drawing the curtain on Centro-matic, Will Johnson seems ready to gather all these musical forces under one roof.
Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is Johnson's most immediately tuneful record to date. By and large, the songs embrace a dusty, roots rock spirit, often heavy on the guitar and with a layered approach to vocals. It's rarely a "crowded" sound, but its a step or three beyond the quiet living room acoustic/pedal steel project Johnson had originally envisioned. Some of Hatteras Night's sweetest moments do actually come from the record's more sonically restrained bits. "Childress (To Ogden)" is a gorgeous meeting of Jason Molina and Townes Van Zandt: There's a blood moon at my window / And a young wolf at my side. The song "Hatteras" follows in this same vein: For I have worked, and I have traveled / And I am calloused, and I am beat. Without showing his cards with easy lyrics, Johnson sounds truly vulnerable here, in a revealing acoustic session. In the former, haunted backing vocals blow through like lonely tumbleweeds.
In early published interviews, he tells how his record coalesced around a loose story and a small cast of characters. "Ruby Shameless" names names, told from the standpoint of a man smitten by a dancer. The song is a ballad built on electric guitar, a spare sound that could be heard either as protective or as sinister and possessive. Just a little crush of flesh / A cigarette burn / Or a spice across your chest.
But much of Hatteras Night makes a noise that counters these more tender tendencies. "Predator" recalls Johnson's work with M Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis in Monsters of Folk. A full band surrounds the singer with piano, pedal steel and percussion seemingly borrowed from the soundstage of a spaghetti western. That old time sound came flooding back around / Like a predator / That knew I wanted to be found. "Filled With a Falcon's Dreams" paints with patchouli scented SoCal country-rock textures a'la early Neil Young. It's follow close behind by one of the most unraveled pieces on the record in "Heresy and Snakes". Fuzz and tremolo guitars are distorted almost beyond recognition, and a deep and troubling rumble underlies it all.
That spirit achieves its pinnacle in "Every Single Day of Late". As the song grows, the knot of guitar noise unfurls in an almost manic direction. Syncopated percussive slaps and metallic clangs argue with the guitar squall for an industrial racket.
Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm is a lullaby for a sleepless night. It's a sound that could just as easily comfort as it could let in the dark and leave one haunted. That said, it's a career-defining album for Will Johnson, one that could easily weave its way into your dreams.
By the time you finish our weekly playlist, you'll have enjoyed an embarrassing wealth of new stuff from Justin Townes Earle, Lindi Ortega, Pokey LaFarge, Sam Outlaw and more. And yes, John Moreland has released his first volley from a record that will certainly raise him to rarefied heights. I am so embarrassed on your behalf.
- Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, "Torpedo" Way Out West (Superlatone, 17)
- Los Straitjackets, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" What's So Funny About Peace Love & Los Straitjackets (Yep Roc, 17) D
- Ben Nichols, "Stormy Eyed Valentine" Love Me / Love Me Not (Amazon, 17)
- King Wilkie, "Wrecking Ball" Low Country Suite (Rounder, 07)
- Kasey Chambers w/Keith Urban, "If We Had a Child" Dragonfly (Essence, 17)
^ Will Johnson, "Every Single Day of Late" Hatteras Night a Good Luck Charm (Undertow, 17) D
- Leif Vollebekk, "Big Sky Country" Twin Shadows (Secret City, 17)
- John Moreland, "It Don't Suit Me (Like Before)" Big Bad Luv (4AD, 17) D
- Ha Ha Tonka, "Everything" Heart-Shaped Mountain (Bloodshot, 17) D
- Whiskey & Co, "Damn I Miss You" Ripped Together Torn Apart (No Idea, 17) D
- Jason Eady, "Barrabas" Jason Eady (Old Guitar, 17)
- Johnny Cash, "Johnny 99" Johnny 99 (Sony, 93)
- Pieta Brown w/Mason Jennings, "How Soon" Postcards (Lustre, 17)
- Sam Outlaw, "Trouble" Tenderheart (Six Shooter, 17) D
- Andrew Combs, "Blood Hunters" Canyons of My Mind (New West, 17)
- Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Furniture Man" What In the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors, 17)
- Chatham County Line, "I Got Worry" IV (Yep Roc, 08)
- Pokey LaFarge, "Riot In the Streets" Manic Revelations (Rounder, 17) D
- Big Blue, "It Ain't Easy" Gold Star (Autumn Tone, 17)
- Old 97s, "Bad Luck Charm" Graveyard Whistling (ATO, 17)
- Lindi Ortega, "Til the Goin' Gets Gone" Til the Goin' Gets Gone (Shadowbox, 17) D
- Sunny Sweeney, "I Feel Like Hank Williams" Trophy (Aunt Daddy, 17) D
- Town Mountain, "Southern Crescent" Southern Crescent (Town Mt, 16)
- Justin Townes Earle, "Champagne Corolla" Kids in the Streets (New West, 17) D
- Angaleena Presley, "Motel Bible" Wrangled (Mining Light, 17) D
- Hurray For the Riff Raff, "Navigator" The Navigator (ATO, 17)
- Caroline Spence, "Hotel Amarillo" Spades & Roses (Spence, 17)
- Molly Burch, "Downhearted" Please Be Mine (Burch, 17)
- Christopher Paul Stelling, "Bad Guys" Itinerant Arias (Anti, 17) D
- Heath Green & the Makeshifters, "Ain't Got God" Heath Green & the Makeshifters (Alive Naturalsound, 17)