The Skygreen Leopards - "Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass" (Gorgeous Johnny)
When the Jewelled Antler crew ‘broke’ all those years ago, most of us pigeonholed them as back-to-nature, field-recording characters – hippies, basically, though of a surer cut than usual. But while there was some overlap with the free-folk underground, their concept was more complex and fascinating than most of their contemporaries: each branch from the tree (Thuja, Blithe Sons, Giant Skyflower Band, Der TPK, etc) further complicated your understanding of what they were about. The Skygreen Leopards (a.k.a. Glenn Donaldson and Donovan Quinn) first appeared a good number of years ago, and across a number of albums they’ve refined their chamber-pop duo-cum-collective approach, such that Gorgeous Johnny feels effortless while ticking all the right referential boxes.
The more cynical among us could carp about that referentiality: certainly, 1960s pop is not an under-explored field, and at its most whimsical, Gorgeous Johnny falls slightly foul of its pretences. But this only happens once or twice. More often, Donaldson and Quinn repay your patience through songs that delight with their gentle perfection – and here, everything revolves around idyll, whether this be the troubled idyll of the characters that populate the songs, or the gestural idyll of the production, full of chiming guitars, snares that splat with reverb, pianos tinkering in a cavernous old household, wistful waves of organ and mellotron. But Quinn’s flighty whisper is the pivot for the record, sitting somewhere between an awestruck Donovan Leitch, a genial Bob Dylan, and the world-weariness of Epic Soundtracks on his broken-hearted solo albums.
I guess the broader question here is ‘what’s at stake,’ exactly, in this kind of revisionism. When listening to Gorgeous Johnny, I’m strangely reminded of the almost polemical recuperation of country and folk undertaken by one-time shoe-gazers Moose in the early 1990s, their leap from the by-numbers guitar-noise-pop of “Jack” to the Buckley/Hardin/Gentry fantasia of 1992’s XYZ album. This was an important move, because it broke with general (and reductive) understandings of the ground that ‘underground artists’ could rightfully cover. With Gorgeous Johnny, avant-pop, folk, improv etc artists Donaldson and Quinn similarly light down in an imagined reconstruction – this time, of fey ’60s baroque – which, given how hampered underground discourse is by its language of unexamined extremity and drone/noise redundancy, feels pretty wilfully contrary, in a welcome way. But most importantly, all of the songs here are strong enough to be bolstered (rather than swamped) by their rococo touches and period piece flourishes.