Take a throwback spirit, place it in the bodies of some hip, young upstarts, let them loose to create rock and roll, and you have the sound of UK rockers Johnny Foreigner.
The Birmingham-based trio’s spiritual forefathers are those bands who, whether preceding or reacting to the slick sounds and glossy photos of corporate rock, took a reckless, come-out-swinging approach to their music. The group has attitude to spare and soaks its music in youthful impudence. Embracing the essence of punk, Johnny Foreigner’s musical philosophy might best be summed up in the words of the first track on this their first full-length: “Get off before the ship goes down / Get off before the ship sinks…”
Despite the looming specter of rock and roll’s great misfits over the band’s work, its sound is thoroughly modern. The band takes that great, old-school punk attitude and marries it with angular guitars, dance-provoking drumbeats, and boy-girl vocal pairings for a sound that practically screams for the most mischievous, volume-loving members of the young indie rock contingent to pay attention.
And, just when it seems a few spare parts are leftover from the assembly of the Johnny Foreigner vehicle and the wheels are about to fall off, the band takes the listener by surprise, throwing in an incredibly tight musical breakdown that runs down the runaway train and lets the group’s ability to play with precision and poise come out. Learning the rules only for the purpose of breaking them seems the M.O. of Johnny Foreigner’s members, who have crafted a debut that is rebellious, cheeky, funny, loose, and musically solid all at the same time.
Most of the album is played full speed (and volume) ahead. Building some terrific gang vocals, breezy handclaps, and distorted mid-‘90s alt. rock guitar figures into an otherwise prototypical punk construction, “Cranes and Cranes and Cranes and Cranes” is an example of the band’s best work. It retains enough accessibility to hook the listener while remaining driving and churning enough to inspire that listener to fling their body around the room. Directly following that track, “The End and Everything After” is The Hold Steady with less Springsteen influence and a dash of New Wave.
In addition to the musicians’ ability to play with tight control, they show restraint and creativity in their arranging and writing at times as well. Case in point: the sweet, ambient (almost Eno-esque) intro on “Champagne Girls I Have Known”, which sets up an anticipatory tone before giving way to a clusterbomb of drums and guitars. At its opening, “Our Bipolar Friends” employs the quiet shimmer of a synth and rhythmic but hushed guitar playing. Once the track kicks into its true existence, it features some of the most melodic guitar on the record and one of the set’s most interesting arrangements.
As mentioned, the musicians mix and match their vocals (often within the same song) with a certain glee. Alexei Berrow carries most of the heavy lifting; his vocals are well-suited for the band’s unchained approach. He can provide a great rebel yell when necessary but mostly exudes a brash, devil-may-care tone that drives the band. Kelly Southern takes a few leads but mostly serves to respond on call-and-response tunes or beef up the vocal layering on others. Her leads are not as consistent as Berrow’s, but she delivers a few very compelling performances.
The only instances their relative youth works against them are in times of lyrical immaturity. Johnny Foreigner packs a definite musical punch that would only be augmented by more lyrical heft. While the words to most songs simply showcase the band’s overall audacity, it’s possible to be a pushy kid with something to say. If Johnny Foreigner learns this and puts it into practice, the group may be something of an unstoppable force. The spirit and skill of rock and roll are all here.
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