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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1262

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John Train: Looks Like Up
by George Graham

(Record Cellar 070 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/28/2001)

In the decade since it started to make an impact, the roots-rock or Americana style has produced a lot of good bands. Indeed, the scene is quite prolific now, with dozens of new releases each month. While some bands are followers more than innovators, the whole premise of the style is to draw on the tried-and-true influences of country, early rock and folk and some blues, so it's not the place to find edgy iconoclastic music. The best bands draw on the genre's original influences, rather than looking to a previous revival bands for direction. But in any case, the fact that the whole premise of the music is the avoidance of the pretense and phoniness of the corporate rock and pop world, makes the proportion of worthwhile music coming out of the roots-rock scene a lot higher than most other genres.

One problem is that, given the common stylistic basis for roots rock, and the plethora number of bands around, it can sometimes be hard for a group to set itself apart.

This week, we have the second release from a band that has created a distinctive mostly acoustic sound, and has marked itself with a combination of high quality material and an ability to eschew many of the roots-rock cliches. The group calls itself John Train, and their new CD is named Looks Like Up.

John Train is from Philadelphia, and named themselves after a pseudonym that was used by the late 1960s topical folksinger Phil Ochs when he wanted to perform incognito. This group had its start when principal songwriter and guitarist Jon Houlon became friends with and eventually roommate of Mike Brenner, who was in a popular Philadelphia area band called Low Road. At the time, Houlon was in school, coming to Philadelphia from Texas to study. During his studies, he put aside his guitar to avoid distractions. Later, in 1995, as Brenner's band was winding down, Houlan and Brenner saw a performance by Peter Rowan and Dobro master Jerry Douglas. The two decided to perform together in a similar setting, with Brenner having taken up the Dobro. They called themselves John Train and Friends, and began gigging wherever they could, doing mainly old country covers.

In 1996 and 1997 the band began to take shape with some recording in Boston and a regular Wednesday night spot for two years at a Fairmount, PA, bar. After being signed to the Southeast Pennsylvania record label Record Cellar, they released their debut CD Angels Turned Thieves in 1999, which turned out to be a fine recording that attracted a fair amount of attention in the Americana music world with the Houlon's sincere vocals and the group's laid-back acoustic sound including well-known folk fiddler Jan Ansill, who was part of the group for a while.

Now, the band is out with Looks Like Up which was actually recorded over a period of a year from September 1999 to September 2000. The band's personnel is somewhat altered, with Ansill departed, but still contributing, and bassist Steve Demarest and mandolinist Bill Ferguson remaining with the group, and the addition of steel guitar player Mark Tucker. The lack of a regular drummer reflects the group's generally more folky sound, though Mark Schreiber plays drums on most of the CD's tracks.

Once again, the group's combination of laid-back sound and generally folky approach makes John Train's sound quite appealing. The CD's title, Looks Like Up, is a bit ironic, given the preponderance of sad songs about lost loves, loneliness and bittersweet memories. But it's not a cry-in-your beer country album, either. Making this CD more interesting, and setting it apart from most roots rock bands, who tend to be quite self-contained on the records, is the presence of horn and string players, which provide some pleasant surprises, rather than a big production sound.

This CD of twelve succinct songs, timing in at under forty minutes, begins with Lonely Next Door, which provides a preview of the general sad lyrical mood of the recording, despite its bouncy sound. <<>>

Another appealing song with bittersweet lyrics is If I'm Gonna Get Blamed, with a tasteful acoustic country setting, highlighting Brenner's Dobro. <<>>

With a decidedly country direction, thanks to Tucker's weeping steel guitar, is Nobody's Seen the Wind. It features some of the CD's best lyrics, though they are still in a downcast mood, dwelling on loss. <<>>

A horn section makes an appearance on the track called Misery Loves Company. The curious sound of the country-folk band being supplemented by the soul-style horn section ends up being vaguely reminiscent of an acoustic version of Robbie Robertson and the Band. For me, the track proves to be one of the album's strongest. <<>>

Trumpet man Matt Cappy from the horn section on Misery Loves Company also makes an appearance on 500 Miles, another song of loss. Houlon seems to be in his element in this kind of country-folk torch song. <<>>

The about most lyrically upbeat song on the album is Playground Attraction, though there always seems to be an element of melancholy to Houlon's songs. <<>>

Perhaps the most stylistically unexpected track on Looks Like Up is You Won't Say My Name, which comes across as kind of country-influenced cabaret song, with its interesting blend of influences. <<>>

The CD ends with Savannah, its most impressive piece, both in terms of writing and in the presence of the classically tinged string quartet, tastefully arranged by former John Train member Jay Ansill. The combination of the country-folk and classical sounds works surprising well. <<>>

The band John Train on their new second CD Looks Like Up has proven to be one of the finer, and more distinctive of the many good groups to emerge from the roots rock/Americana movement. Their combination of worthy, literate writing, mainly acoustic instrumentation, and stylistic eclecticism combine for memorable listening, even as the lyrics look down most of the time. The group's Dobro-man and co-founder Mike Brenner again served as producer and did an excellent job in creating an interesting and tasteful recording through the use of the additional players including strings and horn sections, allowing the music's country and folk undercurrent to mix with influences from soul and blues to classical.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B. Most of the time the acoustic instruments are well-recorded, but the overall mix was pumped up a bit too much with audio compression which kills some of the group's acoustic subtlety.

Overall, Looks Like Up is a thoroughly worthwhile album that exemplifies the most laudable attributes of today's Roots Rock scene.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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