[19 March 2012]
The first time I saw B.A. Johnston perform, he had placed small dishes of dill pickle chips on the urinals before the show. I remember noticing them because a stranger and I both laughed, grossed out. I initially thought of the chips as just a wacky prop for Johnston’s sad-clown act: he was singing about living in his mom’s basement, then, about video games and perpetual loneliness, about his desire to buy a deep fryer for his bedroom, and so dill pickle chips were somehow the perfect decoration. But by the end of the night, as a sweaty and half-naked Johnston stumbled off the stage—wrapped as I remember him being in a Hamilton Tigercats flag—the chips were gone. We had eaten them while we urinated (well, someone had). Johnston had gone low, indeed, and he had taken us right down with him.
That show took place sometime in 2005, and Canadian road fiend B.A. Johnston is still interested in vehicles of slacker identity on his eighth album, Hi Dudes! He’s perhaps become more nostalgic, though. Acid and slurpies, McDonald’s pizza, Donkey Kong, and Gameboy-playing on family trips to Florida are just a few of the subjects covered across this silly but often charming batch of songs. Toys and TV shows are as important as people in Johnston’s world: “Plinko is all that you know / And the couch is the only place you wanna roam / Oh, I wanna kiss you, Price is Right.” His songs take us back to simpler times and entertainments.
The cultish live shows can seem slipshod (he tends to move around a lot), but everything’s in its place on this recording. The opener “Raised by the Wooden Spoon” is textured and propulsive, retro 8-bit sounds and rhythms moving it along. Indie-folk darling Laura Barrett lends sweet harmonies on the chipper “Truffle Shuffle”, which has Johnston imagining what the group dynamic is like now for the actors from the Goonies. And an appropriately cold but welcome chorus spontaneously emerges on “Heating Bill Blues”. These tracks are decidedly minimalist—Johnston’s comic voice and emo acoustic always the focus—but producer Paul Linklater (Dave Bidini, Pinecones) has managed to keep the backdrop varied and interesting.
Bizarrely, Johnston’s nostalgia and his interest in the down and out reminds me, sometimes, of Springsteen. But he’s less sympathetic than the Boss. There’s a marked distance between his own point of view and the parts of town he seems both drawn to and stuck in, and he occasionally aims for moralistic humor. “I don’t think your baby should be chugging all those Chicken McNuggets / He’s only one but it’s okay ‘cause his mom saved money from using a coupon,” he laments on “Best Day Ever”. Still, Johnston has a special knack for relating both the pathetic and the beautiful sides of life’s cheaper pleasures, and the touching moments stand out: “Final Fantasy 7 saves my life / Keeps me from wondering who you’re with tonight,” goes the refrain of the somber “RPG”.
B.A. Johnston is a character that can seem crude and campy, but his is the universe we’re all stuck in, maybe, surrounded by junk and without a compass, as we are. “We’ve all got rituals / Mine involve breakfast cereals and game shows,” he sings on “Showcase Showdown”. Here’s a dude who at least knows what he likes. Johnston can be funny, too, but there’s a poetic naïveté in his way of dealing with it all.