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(Brushfire Records 4149 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/16/2005)
When you think of music made by surfers, the Beach Boys come to mind, or the surf guitarists like the Ventures and Dick Dale. This week, we have a singer-songwriter who was heading toward a career as a championship surfer, before he decided to concentrate on his music. Jack Johnson is his name, and his new third CD is called In Between Dreams. And far from sounding like the twangy rock most people associate with surf music, Johnson has made a breezy, laid-back acoustic recording of easy-going songs that have almost nothing to do with catching the perfect wave.
Jack Johnson is a second generation surfer. His father, Jeff Johnson, an accomplished longboarder, set off in the 1960s, sailing solo from California to Hawaii in search of adventure. He decided to stay on the north shore of Oahu, where young Jack grew up and lives to this day. Jack's first goal was to be a film-maker and he studied film at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He eventually made a film called "Thicker Than Water" which apparently attracted something of a following among surfers. He followed that with "September Sessions." Johnson also had taken up the guitar by age 14, and said that the first two tunes he learned at the same time were by one Metallica and Father and Son by Cat Stevens. He played music mainly for his own amusement, but in January 2001, released a home-made recording called Brushfire Fairytales, which he expected mainly to sell to his surfing friends. But the CD caught on unexpectedly, and eventually got national distribution and ultimately sold over a million copies, and reached the top of the pop charts in New Zealand. Johnson followed that in 2002 with On and On, which continued his appealing, laid-back musical persona.
Now he is out with In Between Dreams, and it is an instantly likable CD marked by a kind of living-room acoustic band sound, with Johnson's vocals sounding like a warm, sunny Hawaiian afternoon, and songs that evoke that kind of mood, though there are a few with lyrics of more substance. Although there are one or two references to Hawaii in the lyrics, one would be hard-pressed to deduce that Johnson is a life-song surfer. He sings of the classic subjects of songwriters, love and its consequences, along with a sad story of the death of a baby.
Johnson is joined by his regular band including bassist Marlo Podlewski, and Adam Topol on drums and percussion. Some additional keyboards are provided by Zack Gill, but the great majority of the CD is just the trio, with Johnson playing primarily acoustic guitar, adding to the laid-back feeling of the CD throughout.
In Between Dreams is a relatively short 41 minutes in length, but includes different 14 songs, many of them quite succinct, with nothing on the CD exceeding four minutes in length. The opening track, at three-and-a-half minutes is one of the longer ones on the CD. Better Together epitomizes the album's breezy sound. It's a straight-out happy-go-lucky love song, nicely performed by Johnson and friends. <<>>
One of the tracks that does vaguely evoke Johnson's Hawaiian home is Banana Pancakes. In the song, a little rain is used as an excuse to sleep in. <<>>
Not all the songs are quite as sunny in mood. Good People is a lament on the state of the world clothed in a bouncy soul-influenced melody. <<>>
Sitting Waiting Wishing addresses a somewhat uncertain relationship with a slightly rockier musical setting. <<>>
Johnson can get a little funky at times. Staple It Together goes in that direction musically while being endowed with clever lyrics. <<>>
By far the saddest song on the CD If I Could, about the grief felt by a parents of a baby whom doctors gave only a short time to live. Nevertheless, Johnson gives it a sunny musical setting. <<>>
Johnson's Hawaiian environs do find their way into one song, with its ukulele accompaniment. Breakdown also evokes a kind of tropical feeling with its lyrics looking for a break from work and routine. <<>>
The CD ends with Constellations a kind of folk-influenced reminiscence of growing up and watching the stars at dusk. It's another of the tracks likely to evoke a smile. <<>>
In Between Dreams the new third CD from Hawaiian singer-songwriter Jack Johnson is a wonderfully easy-going record that is the musical equivalent to a quick trip to the islands, not by quoting the kinds of styles you expect from the Fiftieth State, but by the sunny, warm, informal disposition of the whole CD, even though sometimes the lyrics are not so sanguine. Johnson's vocals are full of informal charm, his band is very tasteful, and his songs, while not as heavy the kind of lyrical profundity or poetic ambiguity that is the mark of many folk-styled singer-songwriters, are still intelligent both musically and lyrically. His rocky folk instrumentation also lends appeal to the CD.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The clarity of this largely home-made recording is good, and there is a minimum of unnecessary studio effects. Johnson's vocal comes across especially well, with its understated treatment well-suited to Johnson's style. The dynamic range of the recording, the span from loud to soft while not great, is respectable.
If you can't take a trip to Hawaii on a cold winter's day, Jack Johnson's CD In Between Dreams is the next best thing with its sunny and warm musical disposition.
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