Michael Johnson is the man behind Ape School, and his new record, Junior Violence lays all his musical obsessions bare. These songs are big, built on brittle guitars and wide-open keyboards and synthesizers. Johnson’s vocals come wafting through the mix, powerful and edged with zeal but cut by gauzy effects. It’s a sound that also reflects the myriad musical connections he’s made over the years, playing with fuzzy Americana band War on Drugs and Kurt Vile after previously playing with the likes of Holopaw and recording with Brian Deck.
With his eclectic musical background, you can feel the different parts of Johnson’s past come together on Junior Violence. The songs are maximalist and deep in an electronic haze, but under it all you can often find something more organic, even pastoral. Take the biting opener “A New Low! It Sucks Itself!” Sure keyboards pulse and guitars swirl, but under it is a clean, tight drum beat and thumping bass, an earthly foundation for the song’s astral plane of sound, and blistering guitar solos knit the two together in between Johnson bleating “Do you know you fucked yourself?”
The best parts of the album mesh Johnson’s big ideas with approachable, earworm hooks. “Marijuana on the Phone” presents itself as space-pop but comes off more as soulful funk. “Cocaine and Guns ASAP” is thinly guised power-pop, where hazy synths take the place of crunchy power chords. “You Don’t Know You Don’t Know”, despite the shooting-star keyboard blasts and high-register singing, sells itself on a thick guitar riff under all those gossamer textures. Dreamier number “Weak in the Teeth” clears out much of the swelling sound these other songs build on, and the negative space around Johnson’s barely echoed vocals is the most down to earth (and thus affecting) moment on the album.
With the soaring choruses, and Johnson’s irrepressible charm, Junior Violence is a bracing listen. It’s an unabashedly huge pop record, and its winking lyrics combined with a sense of real emotion lurking just under them makes for songs that will stick. They may sometimes stick, however, because Johnson builds on some pretty big names making big pop records before him. It’s hard not to hear his angular wail and biting lyrics and not think of David Byrne, especially because there are moments here—see “A New Low! It Sucks Itself” and jittery closer “Piss It Away”—that sound like pixilated versions of the Talking Heads. Often Johnson seems to take the irreverence and eccentricity of Byrne’s music and filter it through the space-aged gigantism of The Soft Bulletin-era Flaming Lips. So you get heavily layered pop songs with the slight world-music bent and funkier grooves of Talking Heads. It’s an effective mix, and on the best songs it sounds like Johnson synthesizing his tastes into something his own. But on lesser tracks, like the trudging “Beneficiary (Don’t Blame Me)” or the overstuffed “Sourpuss Down to a Science”, the formula feels forced, even borrowed.
All this makes Junior Violence a curious pop album, the kind of record that has a pretty impressive overall effect, but on a song-to-song level doesn’t always hold up. It’s sometimes a bit too beholden to its influences, and other times rollicking and brilliant in its unapologetic excesses. It’s the kind of decidedly not-careful record pop music could use these days, even if it is that lack of care that keeps it from its own greatness.
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// Notes from the Road
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