Freedy Johnston seems destined to be remembered as a one hit wonder for 1994’s ‘Bad Reputation’, a critically acclaimed but commercially marginal figure. This semi-obscurity isn’t necessary surprising – in the overall scheme of things he’s not a major figure in rock history, but he’s a skilled craftsman dealing in minimalist, engaging songs. Johnston’s musical career got off to a slow start; living in the backwaters of Kansas, he bought his first guitar by mail order at sixteen then made a friend drive 35 miles so that he could buy a copy of Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. After dropping out of University and moving to New York, Johnston’s debut The Trouble Tree was released in 1990, when Johnston was already pushing 30.
While his debut is merely formative, Johnston evolved his style significantly for his terrific second album Can You Fly. His most notable feature is his extremely economical writing style – he’s often able to communicate a lot with very few words, and his lyrics paint oblique pictures, often of people on the fringes. Even if he’s been a little forgotten by the public as a whole, he certainly gained a following among significant musicians of the next decade – Okkervil River’s Will Sheff wrote an article on the impact that Freedy Johnston had on him: http://www.willsheff.com/first-song-of-the-month-freedy-johnston-a-lost-1994/, while Death Cab For Cutie have covered ‘Bad Reputation’ live.
I’ve only covered Johnston’s first six albums – he’s released further albums in 2010 and 2015, and I’d be interested in catching up with them sometime.
Freedy Johnston Album Reviews
The Trouble Tree
Johnston’s debut is substantially different to the crafted and economical approach he’d take on subsequent albums; The Trouble Tree sounds like the work of a bar band, disarmingly hard rocking in places. There’s a general aura of economy surrounding The Trouble Tree; not only does it sound like a live in the studio recording with questionable sound quality, but it also features possibly the worst cover art I’ve ever encountered. As amateur and rough edged as it is, The Trouble Tree has its moments; Johnston’s scrawny white boy vocals have plenty of character, there are some definite good songs, and it’s fascinating to hear Johnston cranking out surprisingly heavy guitar riffs.
‘No Violins’ is terrific, underpinned by a funky acoustic rhythm guitar riff and bass line, a terrific lead break and energetic vocals, with lyrics justifying the record’s rough and ready approach (“here’s a song that’s got everything you want/except no violins”), while ‘Bad Girl’ also demonstrates an otherwise undisclosed talent for propulsive acoustic riffs. The distorted ‘Little Red-Haired Girl’ tears up far more than you’d expect a Freedy Johnston song to, while the acoustic ‘Tucumcari’ is another winner, much more representative of Johnston’s later work. Some of these songs, however, are just plain awkward; with the frequent spoken lines (“I’m going to win you a stuffed rabbit” in ‘Fun Ride’) and underdeveloped themes (‘Nature Boy’).
The Trouble Tree is likeable, but it’s a false start to Freedy Johnston’s career, out of step with his later work. If you’re already a fan it’s certainly revealing to hear how his style developed, but in terms of quality it’s some distance from his best.
Can You Fly
Can You Fly starts with the immortal opening line “Well I sold the dirt to feed the band”, referring to Johnston’s decision to sell a generations-old family farm to fund his musical career. Compared to his debut, Can You Fly is much more minimalist and acoustically focused. That’s not to say it’s heading into James Taylor territory; Johnston’s voice is agreeably ragged, there’s still plenty of energy and angst present. These songs are exceptional, melodic and told in Johnston’s own unique voice. Johnston is supported by a terrific, understated band; fellow fringe-pop musicians Marshall Crenshaw, Chris Stamey and Kevin Salem guest on guitar, while Joe Jackson alumni Graham Maby produces half the tracks and adds some excellent bass lines.
As much as the abrasive tracks like ‘Trying To Tell You I Don’t Know’ and ‘California Thing’ are critical for the balance of the album, it’s the disarmingly straightforward material that’s the most appealing. ‘Down In Love’, a duet with Syd Straw, is beautiful in its simplicity; something that could potentially be sappy and overwrought (“Down so far you can’t be broken/No more dreams for me”) is so understated and pure that it’s impossible to dislike. Likewise, ‘The Mortician’s Daughter’ is a simple tale of nostalgic love, but the unromantic choice of love interest (“we drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids”) gives it an engaging, off-kilter quality that’s hard to pin down. ‘The Lucky One’ is similarly ambiguous, the tale of an eternally optimistic, but ill-fated, gambler.
As good as Johnston is at playing other characters, plenty of these songs seem underpinned by his own experiences, and the more autobiographical nature of Can You Fly is perhaps what makes it his definitive statement.
This Perfect World
This Perfect World was Johnston’s most successful album; his major label debut, and its opening single ‘Bad Reputation’ was a minor hit. It’s the most conventionally singer-songwriter album in his discography; it’s comparatively acoustic, and lacks the rawness of his earlier work and the poppy sheen of his later albums. Tom Waits sideman Marc Ribot adds his distinctive guitar lines to some of the tracks, while cello adds a mournful undertone to the title track and ‘Evie’s Garden’. Of all people, Butch Vig produces, but the end results sound nothing like Garbage. Johnston’s song writing is more developed and his character sketches more convincing, but This Perfect World lacks the visceral impact and charm of Can You Fly, and is a little too understated and mono-textural for its own good.
That’s not to say that some of these songs aren’t catchy; ‘Dolores’ bounces along on an infectious acoustic riff, ‘Can’t Sink This Town’ adds punchy guitars to its memorable chorus, while ‘Bad Reputation’ is hooky and flows effortlessly without demarcated verses and choruses. But the tone of This Perfect World is much more informed by the pensive subjects that dominate the track-listing; the title track gives a voice to a prisoner on death row (“But I still deserve to say goodbye/No matter what I’ve done”), and while the music of ‘Two Lovers Stop’ is deceptively upbeat as the lyrics outline a suicide pact. The pair of ‘Evie’s Tears’ and ‘Evie’s Garden’ are both downers, while ‘Cold Again’ and ‘Gone Like The Water’ also deal with loss and grief.
This Perfect World probably falls into the category of an album I respect a lot, rather than an album I love; it has such a dark undertow that it’s not always that fun to listen to, but it’s admirably well-crafted.
Never Home is richer, with fuller arrangements and a more upfront sound, than This Perfect World, but at the same time Johnston’s song writing has reached new levels of economy and conciseness. That’s a compliment – Johnston’s ability to cut out all the flab from his songs, and to communicate complex emotions and situations in a few well chosen phrases, is remarkable, and songs that at first seem inconsequential can become ingratiating. The harder sound comes from producer and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, whose musical career goes right back to a stint as a James Taylor sideman in the early seventies, while the rhythm section of Tom Petty’s drummer Stan Lynch and Graham Maby complete the band.
Despite the minimalist approach, at least a couple of these songs sound like they should have been huge radio hits. ‘One More Thing To Break’ withholds its main hook to halfway through the song, and is propelled by an awesome Maby bassline, while ‘You Get Me Lost’ is lush, harmonised and radio ready. Elsewhere, it’s more of the same classy, low-key song writing from Johnston – ‘Western Sky’ is about a pilot’s son who refuses to fly, while ‘On The Way Out’ is a surprisingly abrasive opener.
With a couple of extremely memorable songs and a more produced, polished feel than before, there’s enough to make Never Home another strong entry in Johnston’s catalogue.
Blue Days, Black Nights
I keep giving these Johnston discs 8/10, but if forced to choose my favourite behind Can You Fly, I’d choose Blue Days, Black Nights by a whisker. With T-Bone Burnett in the production chair, Blue Days, Black Nights doesn’t sound much different from its predecessors – if anything it’s like a more diverse, more expansive version of This Perfect World – but Johnston’s writing is less serious and more pop-oriented before and this is one of his most accessible batches of songs.
For instance, ‘Changed Your Mind’ veers almost into 70s AM rock territory with its electric piano backing and succinct guitar solo. Johnston plays piano for the pretty, poignant ‘Caught As You Look Away’, while opening ‘Underwater Life’ is bubbly and joyous. It’s hard to talk too much about these Johnston releases – he’s a master of subtlety and understatement, both things which are difficult to put down in words.
But for bargain bin aficionados, these Johnston albums are well worth hunting down – ten more slices of accomplished and economical song writing can be yours for six dollars tops.
Right Between The Promises
Right Between The Promises is the most stripped back Johnston release since Can You Fly – after the more ornate arrangements on his subsequent 1990s’ albums, it’s looser and bluesier. The more stripped down approach doesn’t affect the quality of the album, but it feels like Johnston’s supply of songs isn’t as strong as previous, and the cover of 1970s AM staple ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ and the generic blues of ‘Back To My Machine’ underline this.
It’s his least accomplished album since his debut, but he’s enough of a quality writer that there’s still plenty of worthwhile material – highlights include the driving pop of ‘Waste Your Time’ and the slick ‘That’s Alright With Me’. Right Between The Promises feels tired, and it’s not surprising that Johnston waited nine years before releasing another album of new material.
Ten Favourite Freedy Johnston Songs
One More Thing To Break
The Mortician’s Daughter
The Lucky One
Changed Your Mind
Down In Love
You Get Me Lost
Caught As You Look Away
This Perfect World
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