My immediate thoughts upon listening to Will Johnson’s latest solo release, Vultures Await had to do with Ryan Adams. Not only did some of the songs on the album resemble some of Adams’ recent work, but some also resemble some of his earlier work with Whiskeytown. Johnson has a great voice that can transfer from country to rock in a heartbeat and is at home in each. He may not have Adams’ reputed ornery temperament, but he has loads of talent to make up for it. Like Adams, Johnson began with a larger group to complement his singer / songwriter ambition. The band Centro-Matic was formed in Texas in 1995 and is a lot more noisy and rocking than either Johnson solo or his other side project, South San Gabriel.
The first song on Vultures Await finds Johnson plunking solitary notes on a piano and singing like Tom Waits. Raspy voiced and melancholy, Johnson spins a yarn of a young girl named Catherine Dupree who blows up her school. I have seen other comparisons of Johnson’s album to Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album Nebraska and the similarities are not too far off. Johnson also sings of troubled people in the heartland of America, as our old pal W. would call “a group of folks” on hard times, but the difference lies in a sense of hope, an idea that things could get better, whereas Bruce tended to put people in electric chairs and have them cross the Canadian border never to be heard from again.
At other times, Johnson’s music evokes that of John Lennon’s solo work as in the song “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming.” The entrance of the drums and piano is entirely similar to Lennon’s post-Beatles albums. At other times in the song the piano recalls Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” To be honest, Johnson’s music is closest to Wilco when Jay Bennett was part of the band. The starkness and twang, along with the somber piano recall some of the ballads from Being There and Summerteeth.
Even though a lot of the material on Vultures Await is ground that has already been somewhat tread, Johnson does it so well that it is completely forgiven. The echoing guitars and weepy violins on “Just Some Silence” are common to the genre, but there is an emotional depth that Johnson and his players take you to that others might not. Just as Springsteen tapped deep his own deep emotion and darkness on Nebraska, so too does Will Johnson with Vultures Await. Hell, even the title of the album is ominous, suggesting the inevitability of death, except Johnson makes you feel like it might be closer than you think.
With his second solo album, Will Johnson has proven that he is one hell of a singer / songwriter who knows his craft and genre. Besides Ryan Adams, Will Johnson reminds me of another very talented musician in the same field, that being Grant Lee Phillips. Both have an earnest manner of delivering music from the heart, songs that reveal a little bit of themselves and of humanity in general.
Grant Lee Phillips- Virginia Creeper
Ryan Adams- Love is Hell
Bruce Springsteen- Nebraska