No disrespect to James Brown, but there’s a new “hardest working man in show business.” Well, at least in music anyway. That man is Will Johnson, frontman for Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, as well as singer/songwriter with his name on two solo albums. Between these three projects, Johnson has put out around 13 records in the course of just under 10 years. And yet, he manages to keep the songwriting fresh and distinctive in all of his undertakings. Centro-Matic is his “rock” band, while his solo material is folky and Dylanesque. Yet South San Gabriel is a slow, alt-country group, consisting mainly of the same members as Centro-Matic, making them all the second hardest working men, if just by a hair. And on The Carlton Chronicles, it appears that Johnson’s imagination and songwriting abilities aren’t going downhill anytime soon.
Here’s the thing: the non-stop recording and touring seems to be wearing on Johnson. I think it’s gotten to his noggin, simply because The Carlton Chronicles is a “concept” album about a cat. Yeah, that’s right, a cat. And his name happens to be Carlton, which might explain the drawing of the cat on the cover.
What’s particularly odd about this album, no matter how silly it might be to write an album about a cat’s misadventures, is that it’s a haunting and beautiful album, and the lyrics are remarkably powerful and touching. This could spark some sort of trend in music that will find other artists creating their own musical equivalents of Animal Farm, Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows. But for now, Johson seems to have capitalized on an original idea that works (rather well, I might add), though only because it was done in the right hands.
Take a graceful, slow country tune like “Predatory King Today,” for instance, in which Johnson croons “It’s so nice to be curious and free this way/and it’s so good to be the predatory king today!” But soon it becomes apparent that the song is from the perspective of Carlton, after he has killed a sparrow: “In a flash the blood runs fast/can’t undo that broken back/Feathers strewn about.” Carlton finds himself locked in a garage in “The Dark of Garage,” a standout track with some minimal piano and gorgeous, Sam Beam-like vocals. But in the slightly louder country rock track, “I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite,” Carlton finds himself leaving his owner, climaxing in a cry of “Goodbye/It’s time to say goodbye.” But he sees the error of his ways in “I Feel To Young To Die,” a pretty, folky tune with a bouncy melody. Johnson sings, “I have though of brand new homes/knowing I’ll return,” and you know it’s about a cat. But it’s a universal feeling, when applied to a cat or a human being. But the desire to go home is something we all feel, just like many of the other stages Carlton goes through. And it becomes apparent that this is bigger than a cat.
Johnson maybe isn’t so crazy after all. He could very well be a genius. But one thing that’s for sure is that he can craft a lovely song and put together a thematically cohesive collection of songs that are at once timeless and novel. Even if they are about a damn cat.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.