At the age of 21 Johnathan Rice has toured with Martha Wainwright and (as of July) REM, been cast opposite Joaquin Phoenix in a new Johnny Cash biopic, worked with Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis and to top it all is apparently squiring Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley; with all this in mind it’s hard to know whether to listen to this album or choke with jealousy. Luckily he’s produced a remarkable set of songs held together by a voice reminiscent of a more assured Nick Drake; it’s so warm and comforting he should be employed singing audio books into mental wards. You also get your money’s worth; it’s telling that even over 16 songs and an hour of your time this is an album that never outstays it’s welcome.
While there are a lot of players putting their oar in, the heart of this record is just a voice and an acoustic guitar; the aptly named Break so Easy is typical with its delicate guitar line and breathy vocal. Yet while on first listen you could mistake these songs for a series of lovelorn poems, deeper investigation reveals it as deeply current; the subext of Behind the Frontlines and Put Me in your Holy War should need little explanation and a perusal of the lyrics on City on Fire make it no surprise to find that Rice moved to NY on 9 September 2001. But the message never overwhelms the music; it’s come out at the ideal time as the easy pace of this album makes it ideal for lying in sun-drenched fields to. It won’t have anybody storming an embassy but it might make them have a little sigh.
The centre of the record and the first real change in tone is My Mother’s Son, an epic in strings that comes as a shock and you sense Mogis’ hand when an incongruous drum machine segues it into Leave the Light On. After this the mood turns darker but while he does lay on the atmospherics, the Saddle Creek producer-in-residence does his job with a light touch. Props also for the Pete Yorn-ish Kiss Me Goodbye, which a fiver says will be the first single.
All in all it’s a debut that should allow JR to hold his head up in a world fast becoming clogged with male acoustic troubadours. All this and talent too. How annoying.
8John Winters's Score