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Johnnyswim

Diamonds

(Big Picnic; US: 29 Apr 2014; UK: 29 Apr 2014)

Big Tunes and Brazen Attitudes

If one had to describe the music on Johnnyswim’s new release in one word, it would be “anthemic”. Almost every track ends in a sing-along refrain to a martial beat. That’s not a reproach. The hallmark of having a distinctive style is that is easily open to criticism and parody. However, what makes Johnnyswim so much fun to listen to (not to mention sing and play along with) can also be a fault. Their big tunes and brazen attitudes suggest that by listening we are participating in something bigger than ourselves, but when all is said and done, it’s just entertainment for its own sake.


So haul out the shibboleths. Release the vinyl rain, as Firesign Theatre used to tell us. There’s nothing the matter with being formulaic if one can just execute properly. And Johnnyswim does so in catchy songs sung with deep hooks, intense emotions, and passionate beating hearts. Both husband and wife Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano have strong and clear voices. Individually, their vocals are rich, deep, and powerful. Each singer conveys a ferocity of conviction with a potent delicacy, like whiskey that bites the lips but goes down smooth. When they sing in harmony, their voices complement each other’s and reveal the profound musical connections between them. This may sound more like hype than reality, but damn if one cannot feel it while listening to them.


So even when they spout meaningless phrases such as “We’re the fire, from the sun / We’re the light when the day is done / We are the brave, we are the chosen ones / We the diamonds, diamonds / Rising about the dust,” you can’t help but forgive their meaningless ancient postmodern drivel and want to join in the mystical excitement. The aforementioned “diamonds” serve as a metaphor for what happens when we lose our fear and express our real emotions, but the representation overtakes what is signified so that the symbol itself becomes a fetish. This happens on song after song they do together, such as “A Million Years” and “Live While We’re Young”.  And as they sort of end the same, to a cadence one can go into battle with, the war cries become clichés.


As a result, the 12 cuts work best when heard as singles. Their variety becomes more evident when not played in bulk. Sudano and Ramirez do take leads on certain songs that showcase their considerable separate talents. Take Sudano’s love-swept “Closer.” The song fades with a long instrumental coda that reveals just how affecting her voice was. You can hear her chanting in your head long after she has stopped singing.


Ramirez sounds like a more bluesy John Legend. There’s sophistication and sweetness, but his vocals come off as heavy more than light. His howl of revenge, “Pay Dearly”, may be bitter and nasty, but not playful. He wants to settle a score; he’s not fooling around trying to get some make-up sex.

Their joint work is just as compelling. When they sing cuts like the appropriately named ode to togetherness, “You and I”, it’s easy to forget doggerel such as “You and I / We’re fire and water / You and I / We’re rain and thunder / You and I / There is no other”, etc. sung over a pounding beat. The infectiousness of the performance makes one want to join and contribute one’s own twaddle (re: how about, Venus and Mars, Ebony and Ivory, the sun and the moon, ad infinitum?). The words and music may be simple, but they also have an electrifying effect. This is true for all of the songs on the record. Johnnyswim kicks serious butt.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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