Friday, February 22, 2013

Now would do nicely

It is, perhaps, not surprising that the 43-year-old Ethan Johns maintains a foot or even all ten toes in the era of music his father played such an instrumental, if not obvious, role in.

As the son of Glyn Johns, producer of such seminal rock-era albums as Who's Next, The Faces' A Nod's As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse and Eric Clapton's Slowhand, Ethan has had some extraordinary influences around him. And just for good measure, his uncle, Andy, engineered Led Zeppelin's entire studio canon, along with the Rolling Stones' output during the early '70s.

Quite some pedigree. But today, Johns Jr. is, in his own right, a much-respected musical polymath, producing, mixing, engineering, writing and master of numerous instruments, with an amazing list of credits including work with Kings of Leon, Laura Marling, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Crowded House and Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Best British Producer award at last year's Brits.

You could claim that such is the quality of Johns' behind-the-scenes work that coming front-of-cloth might be considered a tad greedy. But such is the sheer richness of his debut solo album, If Not Now Then When, there should be no complaints at all.

For a lad born in the London Borough of Merton, Johns has the canyons and valleys of Los Angeles in his veins. If Not Now Then When is an ear-warming channeling of the era of easy-going folk rock, a time when singer-songwriter albums came about through mandatory beard growing, wearing head-to-toe denim, and gatherings of like-minded heads in secluded cottages somewhere between LA's Laurel Canyon and Mulholland Drive.

The result is a gentle, stroll through folk, blues and acoustic rock, steered by father Glyn at the mixing desk, and with encouragement in the early stages from Marling.

Initial tracks were written and tested while Johns was touring with Ray LaMontagne: "I just thought, 'Well, wow, maybe these things don't have to live on the shelf at my studio anymore," Johns explains. "Maybe I can roll these out. Because it's so much fun.'"

The outcome is a mellow melange of folk, rock, folk-rock and blues - or combinations thereof - that opens with the line "Goodbye cruel world, hello sunshine..." above the sparse entrance of the opening track, which builds from gentle acoustic to electric guitar, single to multi-track vocal, and from a tight intimacy to a cinematic roadtrip.

Morning Blues is a noirish swamp stomp, with much of the stomp provided by powerhouse drummer Jeremy Stacey (the Droog-attired go-to sticksman I last saw pounding the skins for Noel Gallagher). As Seasick Steve has proven, the beauty of blues music is often its simplicity. Likewise Red Rooster Blue, with its sunny and strummable bluegrass disposition, digging roots-deep into the folksy origin of music Americana.

If I were to describe Elijah as "Beatley" I would be committing one of the cardinal sins of music reviews. It is one of the most overworked descriptions of all, especially given that it refers to a band that began as greased-up rockers and ended as midwives to prog rock. But as a descriptor of anything with a melodic familiarity that your granny could hum or your four-year-old can wail along to from the backseat of the car, Beatley covers most of the Neil Finn oeuvre, that of Jeff Lynn (almost by default) and. now, John's Elijah, standing out for its delightful, perfectly formed Abbey Road-era piano, Ringo drum fills, and a vocal that could easily have found its way onto Let It Be.

This is an album of expressed freedom. If that sounds a little hippy-dippy, then it probably is. John's low, close-to-the-mic vocal (similar to that of Mark 'E' Everett of Eels) pulls you into his stripped-down domain, all acoustic guitars and bare feet on the floorboards. Thus the likes of Willow offer a personal, soul-bearing charm while The Turning finds a reflective Johns considering the march of time, something we all get to sooner or later after our 40th summer.

Mixed by dad Glyn, and with other collaborations from Danny Thompson (John Martyn's legendary bassist and - literally - sparring partner), Marling and Adams - all of whom turn up on the gloriously mellow Whip-Poor-Will, If Not Now Then When is a delight, a record you feel you've been listening to for years, but with more than enough about it to feel new. Yes, it harks back to a Californian lifestyle from over 40 years ago, but there's enough here to warm the most complicated of modern days.

Indeed, having recently spent a couple of days enjoying the top-down joys of that stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Santa Monica and Malibu, this is the album I would like to have had while driving. Gentle, introspective, intimate and soulful all at once and individually.

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