I regret to say that as of late, the majority of new music I have come across has been lacking something. What the hell this something is, I cannot definitely say. What I can say is that when artists do not take risks and challenge their audiences’ limits, and most importantly their own limits, the results can fall utterly flat; lacking something, if you will. Before you say it, don’t worry; I do realize how utterly pretentious this may sound. Yet even if it is, that pretension sure as shit cannot be extended to Ohio-born, Montreal-dwelling guitarist Speedy Johnson.
A vibrant member of the Quebec scene, and founder of Canadian blues outfit Ol’ Savannah, Speedy falls somewhere between the low-key folk genius of Michael Hurley, the poetic drawl of Jim Morrison, and the grit of Tom Waits. Literally anything but boring, this is a combination that excels in its instrumentation and lyrical evocation, while perhaps falling short on its vocals and cohesion.
Speedy’s debut album Before It’s Dark is said to blend his love for folk, rock and roll, and psychedelic music. The album, which was released in early April, is far from dull, but for the strangest reasons I’m actually still on the fence as to whether or not this is a compliment. Containing everything from a satanic edge and obscure ballads to strangely placed electronic undertones, Before It’s Dark has so much of this something that your ears might be confused upon listening.
Perhaps because I hold the bar for growly, baritone vocals so high (a scale that peaks at Waits), Speedy’s scratchiness really killsl it for me at some points throughout the album. He is not necessarily committed to this one sound however, and plays around with his vocals quite a bit, as if he is trying to settle on something definitive. In “Eternal Bliss” and “Everlasting Youth” he opts for stripped-down vocals that seem to free the tracks from that too much something, and allow for a much more natural feel.
Further enlivened by the contributions of numerous Montreal musicians, Before It’s Dark is quite solid instrumentally. Between various skillfully crafted tangents, Speedy maintains his own unique guitar sound, which is entirely rare and equally impressive. The intro riffs in tracks like “Kali The Arcane” and “Ua mau (Pussy Cat)” stand as a testament to the fact that raw energy and a chaotic mind can sound brilliant, even when it is structured.
While I’m not entirely sure I get what it is exactly that Speedy Johnson is trying to do, the important thing is that there is actually something there that not getting it doesn’t detract from. Although a lot of the edgy moments in the album just kind of feel weird and actually made me laugh out loud (especially the meowing in “Ua mau”), I have to respect that Before It’s Dark tests the limits of what is safe, melodic, and pretty, while at the same time displaying Speedy’s capability of writing such songs. Armed with a strong penchant for lyricism, Speedy Johnson is definitely one to watch.
Written by Jordan Hodgins
*edited by Kate Erickson