Jonny Lang first came to prominence in 1997 at age 15 as part of a crop of ubiquitous young blues guitarists. His first album, Lie to Me features straight-ahead blues tunes, including a cover of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” employed to cash in on his youth (he was just 15 when he recorded the disc). He became an unlikely guitar hero, appealing to Disney Channel fans and showing potential to blues veterans. A year later he released Wander This World, on which he improved his voice and showed the influence that Motown R&B had had on him. Then he disappeared for about five years to make another record.
Long Time Coming opens slowly with the mellow intro to “Give Me up Again”. The first chorus hits with a sudden increase in intensity. Lang works with dynamics on this track, rising and falling in intensity from chorus to verse. For a subtle change, he adds a new guitar line before the second chorus, creating a smoother crescendo. This additional line helps increase the anticipation leading up to the repeated burst in the chorus. It’s a minor detail, but it’s also representative of the careful songwriting that delayed this album for so long. Lang wrote or co-wrote nearly all the songs on this record. His involvement in the writing process has its up and downs.
First, the upside. Lang is writing songs that feel true to him. He’s moved even farther away from his blues roots to a more rock-based song. In doing so, he’s alienated some of his purist fans, but he’s also allowed himself to take a step that seems like a logical follow-up to Wander This World. The downside: Lang’s not a great songwriter. His previous albums aren’t noteworthy for their lyrics, but I had hoped that after five years (especially from age 17 to 22), Lang would have shown a better knack for words than he does. Even is song titles suffer: “The One I Got”, “Save Yourself”, and “To Love Again” are highlights. Musically, he’s fine, but he’s not noteworthy. The disc has its moments, such as on “Give Me up Again”, but Lang doesn’t maintain the high quality. At times he just sounds like a less-soulful version of Stevie Wonder, as on the na-na‘s on “The One I Got”.
Lang has long held Wonder as an important influence, and this effect on his playing was evident on his last record. On Long Time Coming, Lang provides a live cover of Wonder’s “Livin’ for the City”. It’s an accurate cover, and enjoyable enough, but on a record for which Lang spent years writing his own songs, it seems to be a step backward to stick so faithfully to someone else’s song. Lang is changing on this album, but he’s not necessarily growing (even if the guitar solo on this track suggests otherwise).
His other cover, “Dying to Live”, demonstrates his liminal standing between blues and rock. Like the song’s writer, Edgar Winter, Lang has been heavily influenced by the blues but doesn’t really fit into that genre. The genre instability works well for Lang, and his traditional base gives him steady ground to work from. Exploring outward from the blues can pay off in exciting and interesting numbers like this album’s title track. When the exploration pauses on retread soul sounds, though, Lang’s lost.
The production on Long Time Coming, handled by Marti Frederikson along with Lang, hinders any chance at true musical adventures. This record is the slickest album I’ve heard in a long time, and while that sound might go over well for the shopping-at-Best-Buy soundtrack, it doesn’t cut it for a soul album. Too much of the emotion is glossed over. Everything sounds so crisp and clean that it’s hollow, as if Albert King grew up in Pleasantville.
All that griping taken care of, Long Time Coming isn’t really a bad record. Lang’s voice has improved (and it was never bad to start with), and his vocals even more than his guitar playing carry this album. After all this time, I haven’t really talked about Lang’s guitar work, and that’s because he does it so sensibly, fitting his licks and solos in without making them overbearing. After a long gap between albums, Lang’s grown in some predictable ways, and it hasn’t been unpleasant. That, though, might be part of the problem.