Dusted Reviews

NoahJohn - Water Hymns

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: NoahJohn

Album: Water Hymns

Label: Killdeer

Review date: Oct. 30, 2002

Turning Dread Into Gold

Melancholy is a peculiar emotion. The experience of prolonged sorrow can be truly unendurable, and those who can't pull themselves out of such a state usually don't last very long. In the hands of a musician, however, melancholy can be transformed into something entirely different. In song, sadness becomes compelling, even attractive. Perhaps it's some kind of emotional voyeurism; perhaps it's the combination of such a visceral emotion with the equally visceral beauty of music that makes it somehow transcendent. Whatever it is, musicians have been dining out on melancholy for decades, especially country musicians. This is partly due, no doubt, to the nature of the instruments used by country musicians, such as the perpetually miserable-sounding lap steel. Beyond this, however, the particular brand of melancholy in country music also seems to be part of a general mindset, a worldview of sorts.

Whereas indie rock typically veers between either self-pitying or self-loathing, country music seems to be more accepting of loss, heartbreak and sadness. Indeed, a kind of symbiosis exists between such emotions and the music, for it's difficult to imagine Patsy Cline or Willie Nelson singing peppy, upbeat tunes about how their respective partners are enduringly faithful and caring. Country music looks melancholy in the eye, accept that it exists and then transforms it into something beautiful and universal.

Carl Johns, singer/songwriter of Madison, WI outfit NoahJohn, has clearly absorbed these lessons well. His band doesn't strictly play country music, but it works within the genre, even when the guitars generate feedback and he sounds more like Lou Reed than Merle Haggard. The sound of Water Hymns, the band's third album, is heavily informed by country music, both its instrumentation and its atmosphere. Pedal steel, a bowed saw, lap steel, and a very sad whistle show up on the record, but so do electric, occasionally noisy guitars, a cello, and song structures that rely heavily on the Velvet Underground's "Heroin". Playing country music shot through with rock references is nothing new, of course, and NoahJohn's aware of that. Rather, these elements simply provide a palette and the band paints accordingly. The more straightforward country numbers work well ("Saw Right", "Ballad of William Roy"), but the best material on the album is that which inhabits a strange place between genres, in music that finds its own sense of self somewhere among the clattering percussion, keening harmonies, and sad, gently plucked guitars.

One such song, "Rabbit Is Asleep" begins with loose, slow guitar strumming and a series of non-sequiturs delivered as questions. There's only a hint of drums as other instruments push up and assert themselves in the mix before sliding back into silence: the odd drone of the saw, a somber cello melody. The cello begins to come in more forcefully as a woman's voice joins Johns and the rhythm intensifies. Missed chances and regretful phonecalls reverberate through the song, which is both immensely sad and at points, almost unbearably lovely, especially when Johns lets his voice come inches from breaking at the high notes, in the way that only works in country songs. It's what Steven Malkmus' work with the Silver Jews might sound like if they didn't think anyone were listening.

Much of what makes this record successful is the band's unerring sense of texture and its knack for effective arrangement. They know exactly where to put in a pedal steel break or a little violin accent on a chorus. Johns is one of those songwriters who can write perfect chord changes and potent, lingering turns of phrase with equal ease, and his songs express a unique vision, one that mixes tone and imagery in a way that has few exact comparisons. True to the tradition of country music, his songs are filled with eccentrics, heartbreak, and the strange, twisted inner thoughts of someone who's had one too many cans of High Life. In Johns' world, a skinned rabbit hanging on a hook and a crumpled love letter inhabit the same mental and emotional space, and the narratives are detailed and nuanced enough that it takes a few listens for them to sink in and their full weight to register. After a while, the various characters and events in the songs create a kind of meta-narrative of broken hearts and emotional confusion, one where problems are not solved but merely lived with, and life carries on with its strange, perplexing rhythms. No answers are offered or even really asked for, and the music isn't so much comforting as inspiring in its incessant need to make something worthwhile and meaningful from the awkward interactions and miscommunications of daily existence.

One reason people continue to listen to country music, we may assume, is its alchemical relation to sadness, transforming the emotion into something wonderful and nearly celebratory. Which is, in the end, what good music should do. It doesn't mean that sadness should be courted or created artificially, but given that it's unavoidable, this kind of response can be a kind of triumph. During Water Hymns' finest moments, NoahJohn accomplish this and more, taking different sets of sounds and making them proverbially new, all while producing a golden melancholy that is both genuinely affecting and sonically adventurous. By refusing to adhere to genre conventions, or to expectations of what exactly makes a good song, the band has pushed out the boundaries, ever so slightly, of what we might expect from a band, country, rock, or otherwise. Which is a little triumph, all on its own.

By Jason Dungan

Read More

View all articles by Jason Dungan

Find out more about Killdeer

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.