CHARMED LIFE: Will Johnson

For his second post-Centro-Matic solo outing, Will Johnson is firmly hitting his stride. (Photo: Sean Dunn)

BY JOHN SCHACHT

When Centro-Matic called it quits in 2014 after two-plus decades in the trenches collecting critical kudos and little else, fans assumed Will Johnson, the band’s prolific songwriter, would simply double down on his typically stark solo fare.  But two records into his post-Centro iteration, something unexpected may be emerging, evident in the subtle new directions taken on Johnson’s latest, the gorgeous Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, released in late March via the Undertow label. (Go HERE to read longtime Blurt contributor Lee Zimmerman’s review of the album.)

Even though its nine tracks clock in at over 42 minutes, Hatteras Night feels like a much tighter listen than his previous solo effort, 2015’s Swan City Vampires.  At that juncture, Johnson was dealing with the death of his mother and the break-up of Centro-Matic, and the songs seemed to grope at sonic answers.

Here, the narrative conceits and sonic aesthetic get conveyed whether the song is a loping country weeper built on pedal steel and haunted singing saw voices (“Childress (To Ogden)”), a lush Lauren Canyon guitar riff from the 70s (“Filled With A Falcon’s Dreams”), or a Califone-like blend of distorted guitars and off-kilter percussion (“Every Single Day of Late”).

Part of that, no doubt, comes from a sense of continuity. Britton Beisenherz (Monahans, Milton Mapes) and Ricky Jay Jackson (Phosphorescent, Steve Earle) were on hand for Swan City Vampires, and long-time Centro-Matic drummer ace Matt Pence rounds out the studio collaborators on this set. But where previous Johnson solo records purposefully contrasted starkness with Centro-Matic’s ‘hail, fellow’ rock anthems, Hatteras Night sounds like a different entity — dare we say, band? — altogether.

Everything being relative, of course. Johnson’s still penning elliptical narratives about misguided attempts at connection or escape, without sacrificing the humanity in even the most fucked-up social misfits. The resulting melancholia is still the coin of his songwriting realm, but it’s the empathy and grace in Johnson’s songs that always stands out, as well as some subtle new sonic directions on Hatteras Night.

Johnson humanizes the stripper in “Ruby Shameless” without resorting to heart-of-gold cliché — she’s “just a little crush of flesh” to her patrons, but amid the swirling organ and guitar arpeggios Johnson offers her a non-judgmental moment of respite and grace in the “sacred light” of a fellow flawed human. Similarly on “Predator,” over its cantering tempo, winking piano fills and big sky pedal steel, Johnson examines the double-edged draw of living —figuratively or literally —on the lam. He concedes that it “has got its limits, and so few ways out,” but knows these memories and behaviors keep coming back around because they’re “like a predator that knew I wanted to be found.” That self-destructive streak is reiterated, with a twist, on the thrummer “Milaak,” where crumpled beats and percussive strumming hammer at the distances we embrace in ourselves and create with others — “everything about this distance is so true/Everything about this distance is all you,” Johnson resignedly sings.

But it’s not until the LP closes with “Hatteras” — a classic dirge of the type Centro-Matic’s side project, South San Gabriel, excelled at — that Johnson finally turns the narrative vantage point exclusively on himself. Over nearly eight minutes of strummed guitar, ribbons of pedal steel and a tick-tock beat, Johnson catalogs the troubadour’s lonely road and what makes riding out these “desperate spells” worth it in the first place.

“And there is a solace in returning to thee/For I have worked/And I have travelled/And I am calloused/And I am beat,” he sings, turning each phrase into a cloud that glides over the musical landscape. “But just as the sun brings new day/I am closer, and closer it seems/To all we have been, my fearless anchor, love and the laughing/And the weight of new peace.”

Whether he’s singing to a loved one, a stabilizing home-life or to the music gods themselves is immaterial—Johnson has tapped into our common humanity again, and done so with renewed vigor and purpose in graceful, memorable melodies.

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