Seldom has the excessively used "alt-country" tag felt as appropriate as when applied to Noahjohn's newest album, Water Hymns. Often, critics employ the term to describe anything that strays ever so slightly from Nashville's narrow path, when the music is in fact truer to Hank Williams than an allegedly mainstream country artist such as Sammy Kershaw ever could be.
Unlike many of the neo-traditionalist musicians saddled with the alt-country label, Noahjohn's songwriter Carl Johns comes by his country credentials honestly, having grown up in rural Indiana. Judging by his impressively waxed moustache, his alternative qualifications are equally authentic. His facial hair's bold sense of adventure is reflected in his band's music. With each release, Noahjohn has progressively moved further and further away from straightforward country songs. Tadpoles, its first album, recorded by Johns and a coterie of 25 like-minded peers, was lauded as an original piece of Americana. Had a Burning saw the band consolidate into its current five-piece line-up, and move more towards skewed indie-rock.
Water Hymns, Noahjohn's third release, is genuinely alt-country because it resembles nothing else so much as country music from another dimension, where Johnny Cash is backed by John Cale. The band's retained its rural heart while embracing the avant-garde, and the result is a hybrid of lap steel-driven tales of hurtin' and dyin' and minimalist drone and feedback.
"They Will Call", the opening track, tells of a criminal waiting for the law to come calling. Heavy with dread, the song plods along to slow guitar strumming, the ethereal sighing of a saw and the slashing of violin. Jazzy, somnambulant percussion provides ornamentation while Johns sings in voice that's equal parts Stephen Malkmus and Jay Farrar. The melody is a few bars repeated endlessly, while the noise in the background ebbs and flows.
Much of Water Hymns veers into this dark sonic territory, with varying degrees of success. "And the Lord", an oblique meditation on religious sexual guilt, has a subtle hint of menace, but its spare arrangement and two-note melody is dreary. "Faerie Wings" benefits from a fuller sound and a few well-placed hooks, but it too has a funereal feel. On those songs, as on the instrumental "Shy Bladder", there's a sense that the band settled into a groove that they found entrancing, and just worked it, feeling its nuances. Unfortunately, the subtleties of their performances didn't transfer to tape.
Much better is "The Ballad of William Roy," a haunting recollection of the loss of Carl Johns's cousin, who played drums on Tadpoles. The song comes by its melancholy honestly, and its haunted heart is palpable. On this song, Johns moves beyond the blank incantations that mark many of his other vocals on the album, and truly emotes. This is the strongest song on the record, a testament to the mark one life leaves on many.
When Noahjohn play more uptempo, melodic songs, the results are uniformly strong; Johns's lyrics even seem more on point on these tracks, with quirky observations on intergenerational love, the Promise Keepers, and convalescence. Arlene, a shopkeeper married to a traveling salesman, romances the narrator of "First Communion" just as he is about to undergo that religious rite, prompting him to truly ponder "the blood and the body", all to a raggedly amiable tune with a guitar solo straight out of '70s rock radio. Odder still is "Promise Breakers", a call and response song that explores the uneasiness any sensible person should feel when a stadium of white men gathers and vows to take control. Dreamy guitars waft about the track as a choir darkly moans, invoking an appropriately surreal pseudo-religiosity. "Personal Best" is a country waltz with a more conventional feel than most of Water Hymns, although it's likely the first track of its kind to feature the lyric, "My eyes are like olives in formaldehyde".
With its challenging moments, Water Hymns may not appeal to everyone, but it rewards the brave. The best way to listen to the album is to put yourself under Noahjohn's command and float along. Appreciate the great songs as they glisten and constantly shift, revealing something new. Let the weaker tracks drift past. When you travel uncharted waters there will always be some choppy seas amidst the smooth sailing.