Although indie folk’s entry into the popular musical landscape dates back to the early 1990s, the last half-decade has seen the genre proliferate in step with the rise of an American hipsterdom interested in beards, plaid, and artisanal goods. No longer armed with just acoustic guitars and poignant lyrics, indie folk has transformed in the popular imaginary, becoming a genre suffused with pop tendencies, country harmonies, and soul sensibilities. However, this transformation comes at a cost—the risk of an oversaturation of bands who, despite their attempts to blend genres, conform to something more formulaic than inventive.
Releasing their debut album Diamonds in 2014, husband and wife duo Johnnyswim (Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez) did not break from the constraints of such conformism. Rather, they followed the surge of indie folk groups who oriented themselves toward anthemic, harmony-driven pop, utilizing sing-a-long refrains over driving beats a la the Lone Bellow to hook their listeners. The formula worked, but left the album feeling like 12 solid singles, rather than a coherent musical experience.
After a string of EPs and a Christmas record, Johnnyswim’s latest release pushes beyond the formulas that limited their debut. Although some of the anthemic propensities remain (“Villains”, “Drunks”), Georgica Pond reveals a more creative and mature creative pair. They opt for jaunty syncopation (“Hummingbird”, “Summertime Romance”) instead of traditional four-on-the-floor beats, and they elect for more restrained refrains over their prior larger-than-life romps. Most importantly, they cull more sophisticated song structures by consistently translating the main melodies across different sonic and generic modes.
These different iterations of the main melody, whether translated into string-based codas (“Summertime Romance”) or into the minimal instrumentation of an early studio take (“Villains”), deconstruct popular indie folk formulas. They give the listener not only an intimate connection to the songwriting process, but also a feel for how different generic contexts resituate Ramirez and Sudano’s lyrics about love and companionship.
After an ambient introduction to the album (“Welcome to Georgica Pond”), Ramirez and Sudano launch into “Hummingbird”, a song that bounces an infectious guitar hook against a swaggering beat before scaling back the instrumentation in the chorus. This restraint in the chorus, not to mention the song’s relaxed tempo, signals Johnnyswim’s matured approach to songwriting since Diamonds. They no longer need to rely on energetic rollicks to write quality pop songs.
“Summertime Romance” draws from the laid-back grooves of “Hummingbird”, but adds a sprightly effervescence that places it in the realm of a Jason Mraz-like pop. Over another bouncing guitar hook, Ramirez and Sudano engage in a delightful spousal interplay as they sing about their own romance. The song is readymade for a windows-down road trip for lovers: “I’ve never been more at home at a house or a hotel / So let’s take our time on this road / Nowhere to be, just you and me / Needing nothing.” The song ends with a string section modulating the main melody, adding a layer of pathos to the song’s bubbly charm.
“Villains” offers the first anthemic chorus of the record, as Ramirez and Sudano come together to sing about the complications of love. But the reverberating double guitar lines of the post-chorus appends a Coldplay-like flourish to the pop formula that worked for the duo on Diamonds. The bridge features a sophisticated vocal mélange marked by Sudano’s urgent plea, “Don’t you want to be my lover?” The song culminates in a deconstructed version of the chorus—presumably taken from an initial studio take—featuring a single acoustic guitar and Sudano’s voice. The minimalism of this take pulls back the curtain on the production of the song, allowing the listener to feel the emotion of the chorus in different sonic contexts.
The record slows with the next two tracks, “Touching Heaven” and “Georgica Pond”. “Touching Heaven” unveils gospel elements, enlarging the line “You’re my hallelujah” with a choir and extended vocal riffs from Ramirez and Sudano. The song closes with the album’s most intimate moment—the adorable studio interaction between Ramirez, Sudano, and their one-year-old son, Joaquin, who giggles the word “Daddo” and attempts to match his mother’s falsetto. “Georgica Pond” continues this familial intimacy, as Sudano dedicates the gorgeous ballad to her late mother. In processing her loss, she sings achingly, “I’ll be a lighthouse / You’ll be one for me.” Processing pain establishes the foundation for the following song, “Let It Matter”, in which Sudano sings resiliently, “Hurt today, heal tomorrow.”
Although these songs signal Johnnyswim’s artistic maturation and offer a stunning behind-the-scenes look into the couple’s intimacy, they all occur in the first half of the record, leaving the album’s second half to feel slightly underwhelming. Although songs like “First Try” are animated by an outdoorsy porch sing-a-long ethos, filled with stomps and claps, songs like “Drunks” merely repeat the anthemic formulas from Diamonds. In particular, the smoky jazz-club resonance of “In My Arms” feels better suited for a clichéd rom-com than for the mood the record had already established.
Altogether, however, Johnnyswim’s second full-length effort has more hits than misses, as they have expanded beyond indie folk formulas and have honed their rich hooks with more sophisticated musical accompaniment. Anthemic pop folk still remains a feature of their music, but now they are able to resituate their catchy refrains across many different genres and moments of intimacy. In other words, although the record is by no means a radical break from what they’ve produced before, their ability to stretch such formulas here results in a much more coherent and satisfying listen.
// Notes from the Road
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