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Johnathan Rice
Further North
Reprise Records
www.johnathanrice.com


I was first introduced to the music of Johnathan Rice in a live setting, the kid and his acoustic guitar. I fell in love with the songs and Rice's poetry almost immediately. When his debut Trouble Is Real was released, I was a bit disappointed by the vast, orchestral production and the loss of the intimacy that I had come to love in his live performance. After repeated listenings I came to appreciate the album for its intrinsic beauty and excellent production, although I still longed for the intimacy and stripped down fare of his live show. When Rice's latest release Further North was released, I was immediately captivated by the sound of the album and the attitude being conveyed. Gone were the strings, gone were the softer moments of near silence… instead, the world has been re-introduced to a new Johnathan Rice: a wiser, more mature, and more sonically interesting man - no longer a kid. From the opening notes of "We're All Stuck Out In The Desert" it is plain that there's been some growing up on Rice's part, as well as the indisputable fact that the city of Los Angeles and California itself have worked their way into his blood, becoming as much a part of him as Scotland, or anything, ever has been. I feel I could write an entire treatise based on this one song; the dense Petty-ish drumming, the thick guitar sound, the swirling lap steel, and the rich tapestry that has become Rice's voice. This new poetry is aggressive and fearless, never approaching offense, but spelling out the ambience of LA like the novels of John Fante. The sound is immediate and requires attention, never allowing the ear to lose interest, and the lyrics are supremely captivating and not a little disquieting. "Well I took a camera on vacation/ to fit Miami in a frame/she didn't mind she blew me kisses, said 'Well, what's your name?'/I planned my dinner at the hotel/but then my dinner plans got wrecked/an investment banker started something so I broke his neck/We're all stuck out in the desert and we're gonna die/wipe that sand and salt from your blistering eyes." The title track forsakes Rice's poppy past and recalls Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere-era Neil Young, with blistering guitar tones overlaying a bed of loose acoustic beauty and dense rhythms. The lyrics are a bit self-deprecating and illustrative of the conundrum of the songwriter's need to balance truth with entertainment. "The Middle Of The Road" is a bouncing country track with rambling piano and Band-esque vibe, filled with vivid California imagery in the lyrics. "THC" gets a bit psychedelic, dragging the rhythm and then breaking loose into an almost BRMC style blues-dirge. This track is very cool, evoking the spirit of the late 60's California scene. Rice is joined by Jenny Lewis on a few tracks, including the beautiful "It Couldn't Be Me," a laidback story that fits nicely into the cool serenity of a Los Angeles springtime. An interesting note is that Jenny Lewis also co-wrote a majority of the album - especially the more love-driven tracks - perhaps breathing a bit of her approachable darkness into these songs and giving them a larger more mature sound. The album swings back into heavier territory on the simple, yet powerful "Giving It Up". This track lays down solid grooves, west coast attitude, and some very disenfranchised lyrics. "The Ballad Of King Coyote" is a wonderful track, filled with deep, stomping drums and scrubby acoustics that once more recall Howl-era BRMC. The track makes a simple statement about the LA area and the environmental devastation that humans have wrought. "What Am I Going To Do?" kicks of with Roger McGuinn-style 12-string guitar licks and leads into the most poppy moment on the record. The song is undeniably Californian, with a very 60's feel to the rhythm and vocal harmonies. The albums finishes with an incredibly simple track called "It Is Best To Keep It All Inside", a track that sounds akin to the music being made by Leonard Cohen in his salad days with its soft piano and rhythmic acoustic guitar. This track is solid and makes a perfect low-key ending for an incredible record; songs filled with darkness and wonderful poetry about the best and worst of the human condition and a sonic beauty that spans genres and makes for what is sure to be one of the best records of 2008.

-Embo Blake


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