[23 October 2007]
It’s common to hear contemporary records that build on late ‘60s/early ‘70s production values and arrangements. Johnny Irion’s latest, however, is absolutely uncanny in its replication of that era’s folk and country pop. The title Ex Tempore (translation: “at the time”) both refers to the spontaneity with which the album was recorded and the fertile time from which Irion mines ebulliently and sometimes shamelessly. At his best, the Berkshire singer/songwriter is able to recall his influences with grace and creativity, penning and performing autumnal gems like “1000 Miles an Hour” and the opener “Take Care”. The low points come when the classic rock shtick is laid on an inch too thick, or worse, when genre flourishes are used to gussy up dull melodies or lyrics. Depending on your tolerance level for nostalgia, Ex Tempore will delight or infuriate. In my case it happens to do both.
Touchstones for Ex Tempore include but are not limited to: John Prine, Gram Parsons, the Band, John Lennon, the Stones, the Jayhawks, even Carole King. But the grizzled shadow of Neil Young looms largest, almost unbelievably so. This isn’t always a hindrance. “1000 Miles” is 100 percent Harvest-era Neil, from the “Out on the Weekend”-nicked drumbeat to the wheezy harmonica. And then of course there’s Irion’s voice, high and thin, and prone to ridiculously accurate Youngish warbles and inflections. But if the song is essentially an outtake, at least it’s a damn good one. In fact, I’d take Irion’s tune over, let’s say, “There’s a World” any day of the week. “Build a solar cabin facing south towards her home / Let the sun warm us in the winter”, Irion sings, his voice wafting upward like clove cigarette smoke, and I get the same I feeling I get listening to “Old Man”, like taking a nap in a sunspot on a Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, Ex Tempore also features songs that just make me want to take a nap.
The worst offender in this regard is “Short Leash”, which manages to make four minutes feel like an eternity. It starts out in the same Stray Gators territory as “1000 Miles” before quickly inflating to an organ-fueled, gospel choir-backed catastrophe. The goal seems to be to match the soulful grandeur of the Band’s “I Shall Be Released”, but it ends up too syrupy, too self-conscious. It doesn’t help that nearly every line is a hoary cliché, “We had our days / And you know we had our nights / We made love ‘til the sun shone / Had a knockdown drag-out fight / … But I was always in your corner”. When both the musical and lyrical components of the song are so purposefully familiar, there’s little to be surprised by or get excited about. But Irion doesn’t always fall into that trap. “Brush Yr Teeth Blues #56”, a piano-led lullaby to his daughter Olivia, earns its retro setting via original lyrics and a wistful, understated vocal performance. “This is your last Dixie cup of water / But I must confess that you look so cute / That if you want to sleep in a pirate’s suit / Well who am I to argue”, he sings with genuine detail and affection, backed by his wife and oft-musical partner Sarah Lee Guthrie.
But those moments are nearly always followed by ones less than convincing. “Good Cry” is a jaunty ode to a frustrated waitress trying to make it through the day that ends up sounding more patronizing than sympathetic, while “Take Care” is a slice of cosmic American music envisioned by Gram Parsons. “Madrid” bites the Beatles’ “Birthday” and features the non-sequitur “You knock me out of the park / I go to bat for you”. The delicate “Roman Candle”, however, demonstrates a deftness of arrangement and tension building. The push and pull between good and bad material on Ex Tempore ultimately makes one wish that the album’s creation was a little less spontaneous and a bit more considered and edited, because, when it’s good, it’s great, and those songs deserve better company.