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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Johnathan Rice: "Further North"

It's pretty hard for me to imagine that "originality" was one of Johnathan Rice's goals when writing and recording Further North. When listening to his cookie cutter lyrics and completely unchallenging compositions and melodies, one can't help but feel that it all sounds a bit too familiar. Not that familiarity is always a terrible thing. When you're an established artist with a proven foundation of music to work with, familiarity can be exactly what fans want to hear. But when you're a generally unheard of and unproven artist, familiarity starts to sound a lot more like imitation, and that's where I stop taking you seriously as an artist.

Album opener, "We're All Stuck Out In The Desert" reveals what will grow to be a recurring problem for Further North. The song is both repetitive and uninteresting. Rarely do any of the songs on the album deviate from the standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure. In keeping with that simplicity, Rice seems absolutely opposed to deviating from his simple vocal melody. Therefore, when each verse or chorus comes by, you know exactly what to expect. There is no ad-libbing, nothing that would even hint at the slightest bit of creativity in the recording session. It's all very unsurprising and uninteresting.

Lyrics can also be a problem on Further North. A lot of the times it seems as if the lyrics for any given song were written in small parts and then pasted together at the end. They feel choppy and disconnected rather than fluid and natural. Of course a lot of this can be attributed to the one and only Jenny Lewis, whom Rice happens to be dating (so that's why this album exists!). She is credited with co-writing 6 of the 11 songs on Further North. Parts of her lyrical quirkiness can be found in various places on the album. Whether it's the fictional snapping of a business man's neck or the simple command to "Leave me the hell alone," her influence is pretty clear.

And while there's plenty to be underwhelmed about with Further North, there's also a few things that folks can enjoy. The first half of the album, in particular, is fairly catchy and features several songs that could easily be road trip sing-alongs for many listeners. "The End of the Affair" is a pretty solid duet with Jenny and Johnathan trading off on lyrics, and her voice is perfectly suited to the southern alternative rock sound that soaks up the album. Likewise, "The Middle of the Road" is a somewhat well-written song even if I can't help thinking that there's no one else better suited to be singing about how it's a "Long, long way to the middle."

In the end though, Further North is a decidedly average album from an artist that shows promise and has talent but fails to give us a single legitimate reason to listen to him. He consistently switches between imitating Conor Oberst and Art Alexakis, and he winds up just sounding worse than either of them. Despite my disappointment with Further North, I'm glad to have listened to Johnathan Rice, and I hope that he opts for originality the next time he steps into a studio. For the time being though, I can't help but long for something more from Rice. And that is a never the impression that you'd like to make as an artist.

Recommended for fans of Everclear, the band...not the drink (of course drinking a lot of everclear may help you enjoy the album more).

Key Tracks:
1. "We're All Stuck Out In the Desert"
2. "End of the Affair"
3. "The Middle of the Road"
4. "THC"
5. "The Ballad of King Coyote"

5 out of 10 Stars

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