Johan: THX JHN

[3 January 2007]

By Mike Schiller

Ever wish John Lennon wrote songs that sounded a bit more like Paul McCartney?  Or, conversely, ever wish Paul sounded a bit more like John?

If you answered yes to either of the above questions, your prayers have been answered in a single word: Johan.  Say it with me now: Johan

Johan is a band from The Netherlands that happens to make pretty music.  Of course, if all they did was make music that was pretty, I wouldn’t have any reason to spend 600 more words telling you about them, and the lovely lady on the cover of Johan’s latest release THX JHN probably wouldn’t have traveled the 6,900 and some odd miles from Argentina to Amsterdam to see her Holland heroes.  You see, Johan’s brand of pop song is an utterly appealing blend of driving pop guitars, melodies that you never quite see coming before they hit you, and Jacob de Greeuw’s smarter-than-you-might-expect lyrics and appealingly thin Lennon-esque vocals.  It’s a potent combination, and one that the five years since Johan’s last album Pergola have not dulled an ounce.

First single “Oceans” starts out sounding like the slowed-down bastard offspring of two Foo Fighters songs (“Everlong” and “Big Me”, if you’re wondering), but as the decidedly ordinary verse ends, there’s the chorus, and oh, that chorus:

So if you’re lonely
Then I will swim the ocean
Pull me under water
Find me crawling on the ocean floor
If you need me
Then I will cross the ocean
Walk upon the water
The tides will bring me to the ocean shore
If you want me
Why don’t you give a sign

The beautiful thing here is just how far into his own metaphor de Greeuw is willing to go, detailing his trek across and through the ocean to find his love.  The sound that surrounds that chorus is just as compelling, finding a new chord for each line, creating a melodic arc for the words that is nothing short of epic, even as any iteration of that chorus lasts a mere 35 seconds.  It’s this sort of great-in-the-small aesthetic that lifts THX JHN above the typical jangly pop-rock album—heck, above just about any album released in the last year.

“She’s Got a Way With Men” is the harder, faster incarnation of the same sort of formula that makes “Oceans” such a success (in turn making it single fodder as well), and “When I’m On My Own” converts the sound to a minor key, giving the sound a darker, yet no less majestic tint.  Most impressive, however, is the unexpectedly acerbic “Reader Takes a Stand”, a steadily building diatribe against someone all too quick to criticize.  The fantastic thing here is the way the song evolves—you see, it starts so rationally, with the sort of cute play on words that the rest of the album brings you to expect: “So you’re taking a stand / But it’s staking your hand,” sings de Greeuw, and you figure you’re in for another bout of clever wordplay and sugary sweet melodies.  As the song progresses, however, you hear the intensity build ever so ominously as the song turns into more and more of a rant.  By the time de Greeuw is denouncing the titular Reader with lines like “Know it all got shit for brains / And ignorance runs through his veins,” it’s hard not to be a little shocked.

And honestly, on an album like this, a little bit of shock is a pretty major plus.

So it goes with THX JHN.  These are songs that sound simple, that have the catchiness and instant memorability of manufactured, tossed-off pop songs, but contain within them layers of complexity rare in jangle-pop of this sort.  The Netherlands may never have sounded so sunny.

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