Have you ever wondered what Radiohead might sound like if they were a country-rock outfit? Now, sure, Wilco has already been called the American Radiohead, thanks in no large part to the experimental and sonically challenging Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but they have nothing on Birmingham, Alabama’s the Great Book of John – a band that takes the paranoia and widescreen open spaces of the British group and pushes it directly and convincingly into straight Americana. On this, their self-titled album, the Great Book of John’s Taylor Shaw vocalizes and swoops to the same transcendent heights of Thom Yorke, and it is an absolute beauty to behold. However, the group also brings stellar songs to the table and crafts them into huge sheets of sound, working with Grammy Award winning engineer Darrell Thorp, who has, yes, done time in the trenches with Radiohead. With such comparisons being bandied about, you would think that the Great Book of John is merely a knock-off, a sound-alike, but this album showcases a band that has absorbed a main influence and has fused it with the rarefied sound of old-time country music and, this might sound like a boast, has crafted an album that is just about as engaging as Radiohead’s high water mark, OK Computer. Simply put, The Great Book of John is a stunning record, one without a weak track in sight, and is one of the most consistently enjoyable albums to reach these ears in quite some time. The Great Book of John is unrelentingly stark and brilliant in equal measure, and you simply just cannot. get. enough. of. it.
It’s hard to examine individual tracks when an album as a whole is a unified cohesive statement such as this, but there are a few things worth pointing out. Album opener “Robin Hood” sounds like “Creep” put through an alt.country filter and simply rocks out. Follow-up “Brown Frown” takes the glitchy aspects of OK Computer and creates something melodic and spacious. “Let Me Slide” is a fuzzed up version of “How to Disappear Completely”. However, there are also sonic detours that deviate from the Radiohead sound. “Wise Blood”, an acoustic guitar number with swooping strings recorded on the first take that seemingly cribs its title from a Flannery O’Connor novel, ventures into Johnny Cash territory, with an absolutely striking image in its opening lines “This wedding is a funeral / With the maids parading around in rags / We all stared at the bride ‘til the moon grew full / And her friends were drunk but not enough to laugh.” Meanwhile, “On and On” feels like it could have been put on that seminal Wilco album mentioned above. And while “Ashes over Manhattan” rubs a little close in title to a certain Wilco song, it encapsulates a feeling of suspicion and claustrophobia that reeks over this album. In short, The Great Book of John is a staggeringly vital record, one that I would hope gets tongues wagging in music critic circles when it comes time to select the best records of the year. It might be an album out on a small label, but it’s scope and ambition deserves laurels of the highest order. Essential listening for anyone with even a casual interest in either Wilco or Radiohead.