Johnathan Rice: Trouble Is Real

[12 September 2004]

By Jason MacNeil

“I began a long process of recording the tunes I had been writing for over the past year or so,” Johnathan Rice says in the press bio. “I knew very little about recording and had an inherent distrust of anyone who I had never worked with. This was gonna be my first full-length record, and I wasn’t gonna just spit it out and have to hate myself ten years down the line.” Given that statement, you get the impression that this young twentysomething Brit is trying to make not just a name, but a good first step in a long body of work. His debut album, which was teased in a recent EP release, features a brief outro of Gram Parsons’s “Hickory Wind”, as well as collaborations with Jesse Harris of the Norah Jones mania. The first tune, entitled “Short Song for Strings”, leaves nothing to the imagination—a dreamy intro that is short and, er, contains strings and an orchestral flair. It comes off a bit like Sigur Ros or Radiohead—a beautiful melancholic touch.

Rice finally gets into the album on the lovely “Mid November” with a haunting tenderness to his voice that encapsulates Nick Drake and John Mayer’s slight rasp fused into something quite poignant. His vocals themselves work in tandem with his acoustic guitar, but the strings are at times too much in the mix, creating an over-the-top feeling. The lushness of the song is pure British, although there is no lilt heard in Rice’s timbre. More radio-friendly is the mandolin-tinged, roots rock circa R.E.M. “Losing My Religion” toe-tapper “Kiss Me Goodbye”. Opening up into a rock mode, Rice seems at home doing either the sad stuff or the happy stuff. “So Sweet” has alternative rock undercurrents in the vein of a sober Replacements or the Verve. The musician shows both sides of his personality as the thoughtful and reflective folk of “Break So Easy” is easily alluring.

The easy-going nature, or “mellow” vibe as Rice calls it, is apparent on the strolling “Lady Memphis”, mixing folk with a slight country groove. You can’t help but notice though that Rice and Mayer are basically two branches on the same sonic tree—though there are differences, especially with Rice’s songwriting being a bit more vivid at times. “My Mother’s Son”, though, is far too grandiose and epic, resulting in a sea of needless orchestral tones and additions. It’s as if he’s trying to compensate for the song’s shortcomings. Sparser is sometimes better and would be so on this effort. The ambient touches of electronica on “Leave the Light On” don’t quite work either, resulting in a syrupy or sappy attempt at up-tempo pop rock. Its only saving grace is the guitar licks during the chorus, recalling Morrissey’s latest offering and far from being thrown away. “Fell out of love with rock and roll / Shot a hole in your radio”, he sings during the ditty. Perhaps the song that hits closest to home is “City on Fire”. Although not speaking directly about 9/11, Rice set out for New York City with 1000 copies of his songs on September 10, 2001.

Less obscure or cryptic is “Put Me in Your Holy War”, a tune with a rough demo sound that is pure folk with female harmonies. This is the polar opposite of the aggressive punk rock meets new wave tone on “Salvation Day”—definitely the album’s sleeper pick, despite being quite difficult to sleep to. Another gem is the soft folk troubadour leaning “The Acrobat”. It’s blissful as Rice and acoustic guitar create a lovely piece of work—until the bloody dream touches of a harp come in. Nonetheless, Rice has reason to be proud of a good first step. Oh, and Johnathan, get used to the Mayer comparisons. That’s the nature of the beast.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ricejohnathan-trouble/