Many young Nashville bands delve into the city’s rich country heritage to create their own sounds, but few do so with as much simplicity and elegance as the Saint Johns. This music owes as much to country and gospel as it does to the 2010’s indie scene, resulting in an amalgam that feels classic and fresh at once.
“Shadowplay” opens the record on a note of yearning, its big drum and muscular piano sound backing up lyrical guitars and breath-catching harmonies that declare, “I see through you.” The production has all the glossy polish of top-40 country radio, but Louis Johnson and Jordan Meredith’s intertwining voices provide a raw, soulful spark that rarely shines from much of the Music City hit factory. “Falling Back to You” is an expansive indie rocker propelled by melodic bass riffs, while “Lost the Feeling” injects a note of ephemeral, poppy melancholy. “Testifier” is a good-natured and engaging heap of countrified sass, indulging in hip-shaking guitars and rockabilly yelps.
“Blood Red Fever,” the first acoustic-driven track, showcases Johnson’s fragile tenor and shows the duo’s willingness to explore mature, complex emotional territory — in this case the dissolution of a relationship, as the pair sings, “I’m already letting you go.” Meredith takes the lead on “Little Bit”, another breakup anthem, her voice full of smoke and nostalgia. Sawing strings punctuate this downbeat number, a grandiose touch that somehow doesn’t feel out of place.
“Caught Me Dyin’” places Meredith and Johnson’s soaring harmonies front and center, driven by shimmering piano and shaking tambourine as they exalt, “You caught me dyin’ / to get you alone.” The track brims with romantic chemistry, evoking the initial champagne fizz of attraction with its round, orchestral instrumentation and playful vocals. The pair then returns to a thoughtful country register for “Coming Home”, a track that, appropriately enough, reaches into the folk roots that make up the backbone of the Saint Johns’ sound.
The album’s title track, “Dead of Night” continues the exploration of nascent and declining relationships with the refrain “Tell me when you give up the fight / ‘cause it’s a long way home in the dead of night.” Like many of the best tracks on the album, a giddy sense of uncertainty enlivens “Dead of Night”, a feeling of excitement on the brink of the unknown. “Faded Love” deals with the fallout of taking the plunge and seeing love “waste away”, but even its sadness is lush and sensual, alive with fuzzy guitars and reverberating cymbals. The melancholy feeling returns in “The Way You Did”, which is musically expansive if lyrically despairing. The closing track “Oh St. Johns” revels in the kind of poetic sadness you expect from an indie duo album closer (or a country duo, for that matter). But after the harrowing emotional journey of Dead of Night, that feeling is entirely earned.
The Saint Johns might not reinvent any wheels or blaze any trails, but there’s nothing wrong with making solid, country-inflected indie rock. Especially when this much talent and emotion goes into it.