Johnny Society: Coming to Get You

[20 November 2005]

By David Bernard

With all of the publications dedicated to reviewing music, bands must live in constant fear of their criticized past. First, terrible reviews follow a band for their lifetime, forcing new listeners to judge a band by their CD ratings instead of their music. The opposite can also be a problem. When a band has been critically praised record after record, they build a reputation, but they also build an expectation that they must live up to.

Johnny Society come highly recommended. They received the 2002 Independent Music Award for best new band, and their four albums have earned a four-star rating or higher on All Music Guide. Words like “forward-thinking” are used to praise the group. Maybe I can blame this prior praise, but Coming to Get You does not sound like the work of an excellent independent music group. It certainly isn’t the work of a forward-thinking group. Johnny Society are backward-thinking, thinking so far into the past that they forget to impress listeners in the present. We’re the only ones that matter.

“Don’t Talk Me Down” follows a basic classic rock formula with an awfully undercooked bridge. “The Witch’s Plea” benefits from a great descending lick, but overall, it’s not engaging. “What Breaks in You Might Break You Through” mixes Lynyrd Skynyrd honky-tonk and dirty Bob Seger rock. The closer, “High Wall”, features a vocally screeching verse and an ill-fitting chorus that strains to find continuity with the rest of the song. The tracks are competently played and arranged, but what’s the point?

Kenny Siegal’s vocals will likely turn off many potential listeners. It’s an often-warbling hard rock power ballad voice. I can picture him astride a giant monitor onstage, his balled fist raised toward the ceiling. Picture that image paired with these nonsensical lyrics: “And I can’t make sense of the electrical fence / Sending fire through my veins / Til it boils my brains.” The melodies often fall flat, as some sections are clearly not as well-crafted as others, and the lyrics almost always fail to impress.

At times quirkiness saves the songs. “Bound” rides a great piano riff and Siegal’s best Super Furry Animal falsetto impression, but the lyrical problems remain: “I fill your emptiness with little shards of glass / And poison the abyss with poisonous gas.” The words are never heartfelt and rarely mean anything. They simply string together the ragged melodies and clichéd song ideas. Or worse, they make you want to vomit in astonishment: “Nothing comes for free boy / Your nightmare’s on a seesaw / Fishing in an apple core.”

Perhaps these are meant to conjure interesting visuals, but they confuse and annoy instead, especially when songs like “Bloody Blade” are often musically excellent but remain repugnantly half-assed lyrically. Even the inspirational “Find the Light” is strictly a hodgepodge of sentimental “Everybody Hurts”-style Dr. Phil-isms (See how I have to make up words to describe it?). Plus it mimics Joe Cocker doing “With a Little Help from My Friends”.

I can’t help thinking that previous reviews gave me unduly high hopes, but I also can’t blame Coming to Get You‘s shortcomings on my abilities to Google and read. At one point, Siegal claims, “And I’m not gonna stand / For the reign of mediocrity.” Lines like this lead me to believe that Johnny Society are completely clueless. Bar band rock ‘n’ roll circa 1973 is in no need of a revival. And when it is, it will hopefully ride the coattails of a decent poet.

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