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Freedy Johnston: Back on the Road to You
(Forty Below Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/19/2022)
There is a breed of singer-songwriter who goes in for a rock approach, but does it with a melodic pop sensibility, often with echoes of strumming folk-style guitars represented on electric instruments. It’s a style that has sometimes been called jangly guitar music, and it arose in the late 1970s and 1980s with people like Elvis Costello, and bands like R.E.M.
One of those artists who has been doing this kind of thing for more than thirty years now is Freedy Johnson, whose new, ninth album is called Back on the Road to You.
Born in 1961, and a native of rural Kansas, Johnston’s interest in music was somewhat hampered by an absence of record and music stores nearby, having to drive 35 miles to the nearest record store. He got his first guitar via mail order. When he attended college at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, he found a greater musical community and was attracted to the then-burgeoning new wave scene.
He moved to New York and supported himself in an office job as he worked toward establishing a musical career. He was signed to the New Jersey-based label Bar/None Records, which released his debut album The Trouble Tree in 1990. He began to achieve some critical acclaim and commercial success with his second release Can You Fly from 1992. Since then, he as been releasing a new album every couple of years, though it has been seven years since his last release Neon Repairman. In the interim, he moved to Joshua Tree, California.
Johnston’s new album Back on the Road to You provides another helping of what his fans have come to expect – melodic, often witty songs, covering a range of relationship issues, frequently with the classic jangly guitar sound, some of it harkening back to the music of the 1960s band the Byrds.
On this album of 10 succinct songs, he is joined by a band including bassist Dusty Wakeman, drummer David Raven, lead guitarist Doug Pettibone, and keyboardist Sasha Smith. There are a couple of notable high-profile vocalists – Suzanna Hoffs of the Bangles, and Aimee Mann, a notable singer-songwriter in her own right.
Opening is the title track, Back on the Road to You about trying to repair a relationship. The musical setting sounds happy-go-lucky, but the lyrics are something rather different. <<>>
There Goes a Brooklyn Girl is a kind of classic jangly-guitar pop song, nicely done, here about trying to cultivate a relationship. <<>>
One of the more unusual songs from a lyrical standpoint is Madeline’s Eye apparently about a robotic girlfriend. <<>>
With vocal harmonies that recall the Everly Brothers is a song called Darlin’, complete with a little country-style steel guitar. <<>>
On the rockier side is Tryin’ to Move On about a character facing a run of bad luck in more ways that one. <<>>
The album turns to the mellow side on the track called Somewhere Love that includes a string arrangement, with its lyrics of encouragement. <<>>
One of the more charming songs is That’s Life, which takes the form of a father giving advise on life to a son or daughter. <<>>
The album ends with another one its most appealing songs The I Really Miss You Blues. It’s another excellent example of Johnston’s pop songcraft, with an appealing tune with bittersweet lyrics <<>>
Freedy Johnson’s new ninth release, Back on the Road To You continues with his appealing jangly-guitar-style pop rock songs. He strikes the right balance between keeping things tuneful, while a maintaining a rock sonic direction with dashes of country and the folk-rock scene of the 1960s. The band is tight, and the notable backing vocalists add to the album’s charm.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an A. The sound is clean and the mix has everything neatly in its place. The dynamic range – the difference between loud and soft -- could have been better, but for this sort of electric music, that’s less of a factor.
Over a 32-year recording career, Freedy Johnston has created some worthwhile pop that has attracted a lot of other performers as fans. Back on the Road to You is another worthy addition to his catalog, and if you haven’t already done so, it’s a great opportunity to get to know performer who has been called a songwriter’s songwriter.
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