Album review: JONNY LANG – Signs


Provogue [Release date 25.08.17]

Jonny Lang’s ‘Signs’ is his first album for 4 years and it’s a marriage of convenience. He’s still wedded to the soulful approach to be found on ‘Fight For My Soul’, but he replaces some of the r&b influences with a battery of riffs and contemporary guitar tones in an attempt to crossover his roots rock style.

So while ‘Signs’ taps into the popularity of the contemporary soul market, the busy guitar work is also a tip of the hat to his rock/blues antecedents.  His vocals also thrive on variety, shifting from the opening down-home gospel intro to aching soulful phrasing and falsetto on the funky ‘What You’re Made Of’.

Then there’s the big production job of ‘Bitter End’ which could almost be Todd Rundgren. It’s very much an exemplar of a busy production that only relents on the final three tracks which take the album into much more introspective direction.

Confused? You might be. But as with all good albums there’s plenty of substance and enough riffs and hooks that bubble up with repeated plays.

He sets out his stall on the acoustic feather bed of ‘Make It Move’, a Prince influenced song about procrastination. His aching soulful vocal goes through a spectrum of studio trickery before the gospel hook, a primal scream and distorted Gary Clarke Jr style guitar break.

This is fractured gospel blues with a soulful undertow and is very much the basis of an album that combines old school music values with contemporary distorted guitars.

‘Signs’ is like a tumble drier full of blues, gospel, soul, funk, with an occasional commercial undertow, as exemplified by the radio friendly ‘Stronger Together’.

The fact that ‘Signs’ is very much a slow burner is simply because there’s so much to absorb. Several tracks gradually reveal themselves from amongst a melange of guitars, breathy vocals and a big production job, except for the last three tracks.

He’s at his best when he focuses more on his lyrics with a heartfelt coarse, soulful vocal that stirs up a miasma of passion and emotions, even if its not always immediately evident what he’s getting so excited about.

The title track for example, opens with some sinewy guitar, but revisits a climatic hook, via some very cluttered guitar parts, while the wild solo on the song adds little to what has gone before.

In many ways ‘Signs’ is an exercise in an artist re-establishing his signature sound. The success or otherwise of this album is very dependent on whether he can convince his existing audience to embrace his lyrical spirituality, musical diversity and the album’s low key finish which is as surprising as it is effective.

There are familiar soulful elements on ‘Signs’, but his gospel and soul leanings often come with some heavy-duty, dirt and buzz guitar tones.  Listen for example, to the urgent feel and chanted hook of ‘Snakes’ and ‘Into The Light’, which is a bombastic track with crunching guitars and passionate vocals leading to a repeated hook that resolves all that’s gone before.

He rocks out in ‘Last Man Standing’, before a sudden drop-down on arguably the most coherent rock track on the album and surely a contender for the live set.

The last third of the album is in complete contrast with what’s gone before. He strips everything down on ‘Bring Me Back Home’, with a falsetto vocal that successfully amplifies the meaning and feel of his lyrics.

The simple vocal and piano intro draws the listener in to a softly voiced ballad, with a spiritual message “Tired of all these bootlegger giving me away for free; and leave my soul to be, I need to be redeemed.”

His subsequent solo mercifully employs a clearer tone with a little quaver to mirror the emotion of the song. It effectively brings welcome simplicity to an album full of busy arrangements.

‘Wisdom’ is also cut from the same cloth, but employs an electronic production and a piecing guitar tone on a song that languidly drifts into the fade.

He finishes with a startling vocal performance on ‘Singing Songs’, as he wraps himself round a song that nuances real feel, over a slow military shuffle drum pattern, violin, piano and acoustic.

The last 3 songs feel like a cathartic release, in as much as he’s revealing another side of himself, unrecognizable from his early career rock/blues bluster.

Having ‘fought for his soul’, Jonny Lang’s ‘Signs’ now takes us on a spiritual journey that emphasizes challenging songs, vocal maturity and adventurous guitar playing. He’s a few good songs short of a winning hand, but as a restatement of his core values it’s close enough for the blues. ***½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

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