I can’t exactly figure out why Jonny Lang is the recipient of complaints that he needs to “get back to the blues.” He never left it.
He did manage to leave the randier, entendre-ridden traditions of the blues with his baptism in 2006, but that’s about it. The confluence between Muddy waters, Stevie Wonder and Prince have always been there, even during the Wander this World and Long Time Coming releases.
But it was his Turn Around album, forged out of experiences during the Azusa St. Centennial that forever changed the hand that occupied the musical glove. In a sense, it became his inaugural work. Followed by Fight for My Soul,and now, as of yesterday in the United States, Signs.
And his sophomore, post-deluvian work is, to my mind, his best, and perhaps his best ever.
The album opens up with Make it Move A hopeful song that simply talk of putting feet to your prayers. As an opener (assuming you’re not consumed with the Gen-x/Millenial, iPod Shuffle approach to listening to albums) it sets the tone: No drums, but foot-stomping percussion and maybe a snare if some kind. The implication being that the tempo is not set by the artificial.
Next is Snakes, a cautionary tale of adversaries of all kinds. This also is galvanized by a pentatonic-based riff and a vintage sounding amp.
The, the title cut, Signs–in effect, a lament about the fact that the world is increasing in coarseness and hard-heartedness exponentially, and that closing one’s eyes and wishing it all away will not change it:
These are signs
These are the times
Something ain’t right . . .
Followed by the question:
Who’s gonna–make it right?
The primary riff and melody in this chorus, sung in the powerhouse falsetto that falls in the Prince/Steven Tyler school of vocal delivery.
Songs like What You’re made of and Stronger Together respectively deal with the character of mankind and the sum total of what happens when we dwell together in Unity. The latter is the most commercial of the songs on the album, and while lyrically amazing, is nowhere near my musical heart.
Bitter End is a slow-burn hit waiting to happen–a song asking when will mankind stop repeating history’s worst errors (although I am of course assuming that the music industry isn’t a sham–kind of like the motorcars at disneyland that run on a track; you THINK you’re steering, but really) . . . if this thing were given the airplay that “Stronger Together” is being given, it is this obscure hacks’s opinion that it would find it’s way into the contemplative hearts of many.
Into the Light is a straight-up blues/rock requiem to the captives in this life–the desperate–the addicted–those living in darkness. And make no mistake, this isn’t a palliative call for social changes. There are implications of metaphysical wheels in motion:
Dark world has a ruler supreme
He’s the one they call the ShapeShift King
You never see him, feel him pulling the strings
No escaping ‘s case he holding the keys
Under the street, they cry, “give us a sign
we’ve got to leave this dark world behind
we need the strength–to fight-crack the sky
We’ve got to leave this dark world
and step into the light.”
Wisdom has all the blues and foot-stomp tradition of the opener–a slow-tempo song about young men’s folly. And nearly my favorite song on the record.
Bring Me Back Home is a song that appears to be written to Jonny’s wife, but that’s only my cheap-seat assessment. Larger message is: Marriage and family are first.
The final song, Singing Songs, employs the grandiose, string-laden, melodic approach that might drive been inspired by a Broadway play–it has an almost Spanish-flamenco undertone, and a Hernando’s Hideaway rhythmic approach–although much slower.
Lastly, Jonny’s voice. There is no voice on the planet like that. How a white kid from the Minneapolis/Fargo regions comes off sounding like some grizzled hybrid of an old, whiskey-soaked black man and Prince Rogers Nelson is beyond me. The production values keep his voice sounding organic–and I’ve seen him seven times; trust me: he REALLY sounds like that.
If I have any complaints it would be this: Jonny seems to like the technique of using the “over the telephone” effect to, I guess be the “other voice” in a lyrical conversation. I find it distracting, but that’s probably just me.
The other has to do with the guitar playing that has set him apart since he went gold at 15 years of age: the last three records have defaulted to a lead guitar tone that seems to be on the cusp of power, but never fully takes off. As player and listener, knowing exactly what that man is capable of, it forces me into the frustrated posture of wanting to finish a sentence for someone whose voice is cracking. However, my theory is, he’s subtly trying to make sure the song as whole is not offset by the guitar-god status conferred upon him early.
Still, I give this album four stars. The worldviews expressed are clear. And they point NORTH.
Those who would express disillusionment that Jonny’s not making a straight gospel record should read Psalm 59.
Those who think he has departed from the blues should read the same.