[10 September 2007]
On his debut record, 2005’s Trouble Is Real, Johnathan Rice came across as something of a delightful enigma. To start, his vocals were unique and intoxicating, equal parts boyish charm (leading to John Mayer comparisons, who Rice genuinely brought to mind on several of the album’s tracks) and world-weary sojourner as he managed to access a reservoir of depth that granted his work a credibility few young artists are afforded. Tracks like “Mid November” and “The Acrobat” proved Rice adept at penning lyrically stirring, gracefully melodic songs with the potential for wide-reaching appeal.
Ultimately, however, for all its songcraft and spirit, the album strained at times under the weight of its ambition; the ill-advised arrangements which guided several of the record’s cuts made such tracks sound busy and forced. Additionally, a lack of brevity marked, most notably, by unnecessary interludes stretched the project to 16 tracks, a length over which even a seasoned artist might find it difficult to sustain momentum. Two years later, with the weight of added experience under his belt and increased exposure received from touring with a who’s who of contemporary luminaries (including Wilco, Ben Gibbard and Rilo Kiley) and a bit role as Roy Orbison in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line , Rice has returned with an album that builds suitably upon the foundation laid on his debut, continuing to suggest he is a very special artist in the making.
In its initial moments, Further North seems not only to be intended as a declaration from Rice about his progress on the journey to artistic maturation, but also an overcompensation for any youthful follies Trouble Is Real might have contained. The countrified strains of opener “We’re All Stuck Out in the Desert” showcase a gruffer voice (both literally and artistically) from Rice; gone is any trace of the timbre that led to Mayer comparisons. In its place is a more detached demeanor, which allows out-of-place sentiments like “My mind moves faster when I’m walking / My baby’s shoes are dipped in bronze / I don’t give a shit, she calls the shots / That’s how we get along.” The tone and temperature of the song sound affected and do Rice little good.
Fortunately, by the second track Rice settles in and begins to deliver songs which give a more accurate report of whatever growing up he has done over the past two years. The album’s title track establishes a better pace and standard for the rest of the project than its predecessor could. A fitting mix of fresh rock and roll swagger and Rice’s already established melodic charisma, the song seems a perfect bridge between Rice’s two projects. The song is followed by “The End of the Affair”, a lovely and bittersweet duet with Rice pal Jenny Lewis; there is absolute harmonic chemistry between the pair, making the song one the album’s definite highlights.
Yet again, Rice displays a certain gift for crafting slow to moderately pace songs with appeal. “The Middle of the Road” is just that: a wonderfully mid-tempo shuffle. “It Couldn’t Be Me” is delivered in similar fashion as a beautiful, ambling piece of music. The only true ballad on the album, “It Is Best to Keep it All Inside” conveys a jaded tone but still resonates and radiates in a less obvious, more clever way than the form often allows.
There are moments on the record where Rice sounds like a young artist still working through some growing pains. Try as he might, Rice struggles to pull off the comparatively harsh tone of “THC”. Other cuts like “The Ballad of King Coyote” seem average at best. Still, Rice’s growing comfort in transmitting the language of rock and roll is a hallmark of the album. “What Am I Gonna Do?”, arguably the album’s most enjoyable track, derives its energy from a delicious, retro-rock jangle and a melody to match. “Hard to Believe” starts as a pretty typical piece of straight-ahead modern rock but gains ground with the infectious simplicity and rhythmic pulse of its chorus. Added evidence of Rice’s maturity is how potent and tight an artistic statement Further North is, much more so than its forerunner: 11 tracks in less than 40 minutes.
Further North puts the rest of the music world on notice that Rice is on his way to melding the sides he’s shown—sensitive singer/songwriter and self-assured rocker—into the type of seamless blend that eludes many. Rice still has many miles to go before he can claim this type of cohesion, but the album is proof that he has the ability necessary to do so.