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The Skygreen Leopards

Gorgeous Johnny

(Jagjaguwar; US: 21 Jul 2009; UK: import)

The opening track on Gorgeous Johnny, the new album by the Skygreen Leopards, is fittingly titled “Johnny’s Theme”. It’s an instrumental number that sways in a thick psychedelic haze, making for a sound that is intricate and fragile, but too thick and bracing to fall apart. But, as good as the track is, it doesn’t end up fitting on the record, and feels removed from the rest of the songs.


Mostly, this is because the rest of the album sounds so stripped down in comparison. Songs like “Goodnight Anna” and “Jehovah Will Never Come” tangle up their sound with rippling piano and echoing guitar lines, but the rest of the record takes on a pretty basic acoustic set up, with guitar and spare percussion gliding behind the vocals. At its best, its a simple and effective sound. Early tracks like “Margery” and “Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass” maintain the band’s loose, kitchen table jam vibe without losing their sense of melody, and the cracked vocals make the melancholy feel ring true.


But that loose country shuffle is also what does the album in too often. Too many of the tracks rest solely on that feel and let those ear-catching melodies get away from them. The sound of “Jehovah Will Never Come” is solid, but the lines are delivered in an off-kilter, off-putting groan. The title tracks finds Donovan Quinn doing his best Lou Reed impression, and though at first its a nice change of pace from his usual airy delivery, the song gets bogged down in long, uninteresting chord progressions between verses. The song ends up feeling far too long, and though you can hear a couple different guitars and keys going on, it feels stretched too thin for its own good.


That track starts off a sluggish second half where most of the songs feel underdeveloped and a little half-assed. The out-of-tune “La la la” that starts off “Inland Towns” is too cloying to be as charming as they’d like it to be. And “Robber’s Lace” and “Paid by the Hour” are nice musical numbers, sturdy drumming and chugging guitar throughout, but the lyrics are delivered at a sluggish, amelodic pace. The ballad “If Our Love Fails” is the big highlight as the record nears its end, another basic acoustic number, but one where a tumbling melody and restrained vocals remind you what made the band’s earlier records, and the earlier parts of Gorgeous Johnny so good.


But in the end there are too few of those evocative moments, and Gorgeous Johnny ends up coming off as a less than inviting album. Even the title—a reference to an early-era band member that may or may not have existed—is little more than some inside joke we’re never let in on. And what makes the album so frustrating is that the Skygreen Leopards have shown, particularly with their last album The Disciples of California, just how arresting they can be on record. But on Gorgeous Johnny, there just isn’t enough feeling in these songs, making their simple constructions sound bare, instead of stripped down.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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