Frederic Fatzer grew up in the small town of Kinsley, Kansas, notable for its equidistance between New York City and San Francisco. He sensibly adopted the stage name Freedy Johnston. His small town background initially constrained his music career – with no local music store, he bought his first guitar from a mail-order catalogue at the age of 16. He was already in his thirties when he released his breakthrough album Can You Fly.
Despite the acclaim for early 1990s work like Can You Fly and ‘Bad Reputation’, Johnston’s a largely unheralded figure. His rootsy power-pop is always tuneful and thoughtful, often tinged with a hint of darkness and disquiet. His economical, character-driven songwriting and his pleasantly keening voice are distinctive. He released four excellent records in a row between 1992’s Can You Fly and 1999’s Blue Days Black Nights, making him one of the most consistent artists of the 1990s.
Johnston released his ninth album, the impressive Back on the Road to You. How does it stack up next to the rest of his catalogue?
Freedy Johnston Albums Ranked
#9 The Trouble Tree
Johnston’s debut album is something of a false start to his career. It’s raw and amateur compared to his later efforts – Johnston hasn’t yet found his songwriting voice and the backing band’s less adept than the distinguished musicians whom Johnston would later work with. The funky drumming works on tracks like ‘No Violins’, and ‘Red-Haired Girl’ is the heaviest song in Johnston’s catalogue.
#8 Right Between the Promises
Right Between the Promises marks Johnston’s final record as a major-label artist. After a sequence of strong records, it feels like his creative well is depleted – indicated by an inessential cover of Edison Lighthouse’s ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes’. The bluesy ‘Back to My Machine’ is a strange aberration in Johnston’s career. Aside from a couple of duff tracks, most of Promises is typically solid – the relaxed ‘That’s Alright With Me’ and the ukulele-driven ‘Radio for Heartache’ are more successful forays into new musical territory for Johnston.
#7 Rain on the City
Johnston took nearly a decade to record a new studio album after Right Between The Promises, but when he returned he was reassuringly unchanged. Rain on the City is well-crafted, but sometimes a little too polite and restrained for its own good. It’s strongest when Johnston ups the energy – especially on standout track ‘Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl’, as well as ‘The Other Side Of Love’ and ‘Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande’.
#6 Neon Repairman
Neon Repairman follows a similar template to its predecessor, Rain on the City, a set of low-key yet classy songs. It’s Johnston’s first self-produced album. The title track was written to parallel Jimmy Webb’s ‘Wichita Lineman’. Other highlights include ‘The First to Leave the World, Is the First to See the World’, about Yuri Gargarin’s first space flight, and the rootsy power-pop of ‘TV In My Arms’.
#5 Never Home
On his fourth album, Johnston works with Danny Kortchmarr, a guitarist known for his involvement with James Taylor. Working with the ace rhythm section of Graham Maby and ex-Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch, Never Home has some of Johnston’s most energetic and intricate arrangements. Songs like the gritty opener ‘On The Way Out’, ‘One More Thing to Break’, and ‘You Get Me Lost’ overshadow the rest of the record.
#4 Back on the Road to You
Johnston’s ninth album is impressive, measuring up to the excellent series of records he made in the 1990s. It’s his most energetic for decades, while harmony vocals from Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill, and Susanna Hoffs provide some extra colour. It features some of Johnston’s most conventional songwriting – the power pop of ‘The Power of Love’ isn’t as distinctive as most of Johnston’s work, but it’s interesting to hear him dabble in more normal songwriting. The graceful delicacy of ‘Trick of the Light’ is another gorgeously understated song in a catalogue abundant with them.
#3 This Perfect World
Johnston’s third album was produced by Garbage’s Butch Vig – Johnston and Vig also play together in a covers band named the Know-it-All Boyfriends. It opens with his best-known song, ‘Bad Reputation’ – unjustly, it didn’t crack the top 50 on Billboard. In spite of Johnston’s success with Can You Fly, the character sketches here are darker than usual – ‘Dolores’ is inspired by Lolita, while ‘Evie’s Tears’ concerns sexual abuse. Overall, This Perfect World is too sombre for its own good – it needed more upbeat tracks like ‘Can’t Sink This Town’.
#2 Blue Days Black NightS
Johnston’s fifth album shares its name with an early Buddy Holly song. On Blue Days Black Nights Johnston worked with producer T-Bone Burnett, who provides an elegant and stripped-down sound. Johnston’s often on piano, and his songs are more personal than his usual character studies. Highlights include the gently grooving power-pop of ‘Changed Your Mind’ and the delicate piano balladry of ‘Caught As You Look Away’.
#1 Can You Fly
Johnston took a risk for his sophomore album, selling some of the farmland he inherited from his grandfather to finance the recording. Johnston’s surrounded by talent this time around – he’s produced by Graham Maby (from Joe Jackson’s band), who also provides some killer basslines. He duets with Syd Straw on ‘Down in Love’, while singer-songwriters Marshall Crenshaw, Kevin Salem, and Chris Stamey also contribute. His rootsy alt-rock is often edgy, but it’s the mellow tracks that are often the most memorable – the pretty ‘Mortician’s Daughter’ and ‘The Lucky One’. Robert Christgau was close to the mark when he called Can You Fly a perfect album.