The Upshot: Americana-tilting indie rock awash in glorious harmonies and melodies that’ll leave you humming them throughout the day. Available on both CD and sweet vinyl, incidentally. Check out some audio and video from the album, below.
BY FRED MILLS
Erstwhile North Carolina resident Johnny Irion—we here in the Tar Heel state are still proud to call him one of ours—has been blessed not once, but twice: First, he was born with one of the richest, sweetest singing voices on the planet, something that was evident even back in the ‘90s as frontman for Queen Sarah Saturday and, later, a member of Dillon Fence; and secondly, he married one of the richest, sweetest singing vocal foils on the planet, Sarah Lee Guthrie, of the not-too-shabby Guthrie family, and with whom he has released several must-own albums that have made the duo beloved by Americana fans. When Irion sings, he soars, period, and when the duo swap verses and harmonize, they’re not merely the latest living example of what Gram ‘n’ Emmylou taught us all those years ago—they brush the gates of heaven.
For Irion’s latest solo album, he doesn’t merely uphold the high musical and literary (did I mention that his family tree includes a granduncle named John Steinbeck?) standards he’s evidenced to date—he stakes out a permanent piece of sonic serendipity that any singer-songwriter would die to lay claim to.
This is evident on Driving Friend from the get-go, on the gently waltzing “Emily’s” where Irion, switching effortlessly between tenor tones and an upper-register, almost-falsetto, “whoo-ooo-woo…” croon, sketches indelible images of a changing South Carolina coastline that will ring true to anyone from or familiar with the region:
“Sun going down on the Intracoastal Waterway
We were Fripp Island bound
Sentry at the guard post said we had to go away
It’s a private community now
So we beat it down the road for peanuts and some cokes
Looking for a sunset for free
Came across an old boardwalk
Surrounded by the marsh
Seagulls wheeling over you and me
That old shuttered church
Sure been burned down
Spanish moss hanging all around…
Much later, in the penultimate, title, track, Irion sets in motion a gospellish reverie amid a piano/strings arrangement which, buoyed by angelic backing vocals, lends an uncommon intimacy to his lyrics:
“There’s no other place I’d rather be than right here this morn
Your arms surround me like branches sprouting from our soul
I’ve been close before, but nothing like this
Only tears produced from my eyelids
But you’ve got everything I need and more.”
In between, you’re treated to sundry gems, from the Laurel Canyon folk-pop (think: CSN meets Brian Wilson) of “Salvage the Day” and irresistible pedal steel-and-twang-powered country rocker “Once in a While,” to the stoned, Muscle Shoals-styled swamp-funk of “Cabin Fever” (here, the backing vocals once again perfectly complement the material) and a luminous ballad bearing the wholly apropos title “Angels Sing,” another tune marked by some wonderful piano-and-strings playing (it brings to mind Wildflowers-era Tom Petty). Throughout, Irion and band maintain a consistent, reassuring low-key vibe that serves as a contrasting force to underscore the cinematic richness of the lyrics. Pitching in musically are members of Dawes, Wilco and the Mother Hips, so the sonics are stamped firmly with the trademark of quality.
That twinned quality, wedded to the aforementioned Irion pipes—which at times stroke the ear canal like pure sonic velvet, nary a note out of place—create the type of musical magic so often missing from today’s indie rock and Americana artists, many of whom mistake angst for passion, or substitute lazy “got up this morning/wrote you a song” lyrics for true storytelling. Ultimately, Driving Friend simply wants to be your friend, a musical handshake and a hug from one of our most gifted songwriters. Don’t be shy, folks—return the embrace.