Dante DeCaro is some kind of genius, or so it would appear given his timely departure from Hot Hot Heat that coincided with the band’s fall from grace and his subsequent enlistment into the generally worshipped Wolf Parade. Even after such a fortuitous change of career paths, I’m more enthralled by his work as Johnny through his Johnny and the Moon project.
For the better part of two months I’ve been sitting on a review for Johnny and the Moon’s self-titled album. As to why it’s taken so long, there’s a laundry list of reasons—a list that begins and ends with an unhealthy amount of self-loathing. It may also be that I couldn’t arrive at just how I wanted to build up an album that, to me, stands above and beyond all the umpteen Wolf Parade spinoffs. Somewhere between Sunset Rubdown’s sonic improvisation and Grizzly Bear’s freak-folk is Johnny and the Moon, an outfit that makes everything, including the kitchen sink, into a fine array of instruments that culminate in a sound that’s diverse yet confidently rural.
The entire album was recorded in one week at DeCaro’s family barn turned studio in his native British Columbia. With musical help from friends Lindy Gerrard and Mark Devoe, the project is based on a local folk tale about a boy, the moon, a mountain, and a devil’s cult. The music itself stays true to the pastoral nature of traditional folk and with the incorporation of a wide-ranging variety of instruments, heavily influenced by the banjo but also including synthesizers, is able to maintain its course but is also appealing in that the ensemble of sounds makes it a youthful take on a storied brand of once narrow-minded style of music. As all the other Wolf Parade spinoffs have followed a policy of experimentation and usually electronic sound, Johnny and the Moon is unapologetic folk with a twinge of electronics and all the appeal in the world for any that are willing to break from the endless cycle of indie and electro-pop music that we’ve been spoon fed over the past few years.
The album’s opener “Green Rocky Road” is a cover of the Len Chandler/Robert Kaufman written and Emmylou Harris popularized song and is both a sound starting point and tremendous representation of what follows on the record. “Kid Heaven” has a sound vaguely reminiscent of Sunset Rubdown, a la a lengthy synthesized and infinitely layered intro section. Each song’s lyrics employ a narrative tale that link back to the thematic myth of Johnny and the Moon and DeCaro’s voice lends for a variety of sounds over the course of the album, even though at a few times he meanders a bit too close to sounding like Bob Dylan. On “All Things Gonna Come Back Around,” an acoustically driven and harmonica-logged song, finds DeCaro sounding like Dylan singing Tom Petty’s “The Apartment Song.”
“Little Red Cat” and “Oleanna” highlight the Johnny and the Moon sound not just as a hip brand of storytelling folk but one that airs almost on the side of bluegrass with its fast tempo and knee slapping tendencies. On the song “Tamed a Lion” DeCaro mixes fantastic lyrics (“I tamed a lion and I wear its skin/ I’m not your average guy and I ain’t lyin’/ I hear its thoughts and I cant quite decide just who’s right“) with chimed instruments in creating a song that seems fit to be playing from a baby crib mobile. The most captivating song Johnny and the Moon have to offer is an overly strummed backwoods Appalachian track entitled “The Ballad of Scarlet Town.” The song is in actuality not a ballad but instead a fast building song that truncates the chorus and is revisited later in the form of “Scarlet Town Pt. II.” Both of the songs are DeCaro’s best in terms of vocal range and breaking from some of the folk traditions that he stringently adheres to on the majority of the album.
Perhaps it was timing that sold me on the record. It seemed to have fallen into my hands at a time when I was embracing the backwoods bumpkin that I am, being a pasture-dwelling Floridian and all. When trying to put my head around Johnny and the Moon’s brand of rustic folk, I conjured up visions of rusty tin cans, straw hats, worn out overalls, red bandanas, front porch chairs, and mountain lions. Each of the Wolf Parade side projects offer differing sounds and styles while living up to the established expectations but Johnny and the Moon dare to be different even if they adhere to long standing norms of American Folk. Though DeCaro may only be dabbling with Johnny and the Moon and the longevity of the project will be in question, Johnny and the Moon is a must have for all Wolf Parade completists.