Album review: ERIC JOHNSON – EJ: Song Explorations on Acoustic and Piano

Eric Johnson - EJ

Provogue [Release date 07.10.16]

‘EJ’ is a stripped down celebration of simplicity and feel, bolstered by Eric Johnson’s dazzling technical ability on original material and some imaginative arranged covers.

Austin guitarist Eric Johnson pushes himself into new musical avenues by focusing on the importance of the song, while giving full expression to his abilities on acoustic guitar and piano.

Having enjoyed a career as a niche guitar hero who is equally happy playing electric rock/blues and fusion, this project reaches back to his folk roots.

He revels in a spontaneous unfettered musical style that draws on a wide range of influences from folk, jazz and an ambient feel to rearranged covers of Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and Les Paul as he lets his muse flow.

It helps of course that Johnson can finger pick like an angel and lays himself open to different musical possibilities.

His close-to-the-mic and crystal clear finger picking on ‘Mrs Robinson’, moulds the song to his own ends, while his scintillating technique makes light of the fact its just him on acoustic.

In contrast he adds a flowing piano line and a fine vocal to a vibrant version of ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’.

He brings clarity of expression to Hendrix’s ‘One Rainy Wish’ by giving it an ethereal feel with a hovering backing vocal. Then there’s the cleverly re-arranged cover of Les Paul’s ‘The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise’, on which his nimble, busy finger picked lines replace Mary Ford’s original vocal. All these songs show his underrated ability as an interpreter of song and an imaginative arranger

‘EJ’ is an exhilarating musical journey full of introspective songs that are counterbalanced by dazzling guitar and tasteful piano.

He’s at his instrumental best on ‘Once Upon A Time In Texas’, a track with an uplifting melodic sensibility realized by Johnson’s intense, but delicate touch that is reminiscent of Mason Williams’s ‘Classic Gas’.

‘EJ’ can also be regarded as a conceptual album based round the notion that you can open yourself to artistic and musical ideas in a naive way. The playing is both sinuous and expressive – listen to the space, clarity and note choices on ‘Serinidad’ – but it’s also an album that draws you in with its dreamy art work which subtly levers the listener into the music within.

Much like the old ECM ambient/jazz label covers, we are invited to buy into a feel or idea that music, lyrics and ultimately a single guitar phrase can connect you with a secret universe.

Eric Johnson taps into that unseen world by leaving himself open to all possibilities. He broadens his brush stroke with the layered sound of the waltz-like ‘Wrapped In A Cloud’. He adds an Al Stewart style vocal and another ethereal backing vocal on a track that builds from humble beginnings to a full blown ballad.

On the meditative ‘Fatherly Down’ he lets his nimble guitar picking flow mellifluously on a piece that features his best vocal of the album.

The latter two tracks best exemplify a project that is built simply around a piano and acoustic guitar and allows him to follow his creative spirit rather than a prescribed genre path.

It’s perhaps significant that the feverish Les Paul cover comes deep into an album that up to that point has been a model of restraint and feel. However, his incendiary picking feels like a natural part of his spontaneous musical armoury, which for the most part explores subtle dynamics and different feels.

It’s not until ‘November’ that he indulge himself with a full band workout. The piano and sonorous string-led love song is predicated on a lovely sludgy beat with an emotive vocal that draws the listener into a song with real presence.

‘All The Things You Are’ is another love song based round an up-in-the-mix acoustic guitar which gives the track a chiming quality that nicely offsets his warm Jackson Browne style vocal.

The acoustic instrumental ‘Song For Irene’ perfectly book-ends a well thought out and beautifully played album. *****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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