I jumped at the chance to review Mike Johnson's latest when it came out a few months back. Back when I first saw Johnson's sad-eyed, towering form playing bass in the third incarnation of Dinosaur Jr., I assumed he was just a hired gun, someone who wouldn't give J. Mascis lip and try to work his songs into the band like that Lou Barlow character used to. Not until a few years later, when I stumbled upon a used copy of Mike's second solo album, Where Am I?, did I discover that he was actually a highly talented songwriter, another budding talent suppressed by J. Mascis in true Barlow-ian fashion. (I kid about the suppression; Mascis actually plays drums on some of Johnson's recordings.) And now, another discovery: as much as I like Mike Johnson's music, I don't know that I have all that much to say about it.
Maybe I'm being too self-conscious, having read a lot of excellent music criticism recently that has me feeling rather pedestrian. A recurring theme in various reviews and articles throughout this decidedly retro year in music (you know electroclash, garage rock, Interpol as "the new Joy Division," etc.) is that rock criticism is more than just a game of spot-the-influence or name-the-similarities. Yet I find myself composing sentences like "Mike Johnson's music combines the best of Mark Eitzel, early Leonard Cohen, and late-period Swans." And I write words like this because, damn it, that was my impression the first time I ever played one of Johnson's discs. We're simple creatures, wanting a frame of reference; we tend to describe things in terms of analogies. And in the case of Mike Johnson, who makes music that most have never heard, I stand by my simple comparison, even if it doesn't mean much to those who have never heard the artists I compare him to.
So back to the task at hand. On his fourth and most recent album, What Would You Do?, Johnson continues on the path that he has trod so well throughout his solo career, with his deep rumble of a voice working its way over and through hushed, contemplative guitar-based music. His palette is broadening on this latest release, with several songs (notably "Arise" and "The Introduction") featuring horns in addition to touches of piano and organ. And, in "Come Back Again," he approaches genuine rock 'n' roll territory, forging a sound not unlike Galaxie 500's best-known song, "Fourth of July." (Damn, another comparison!) A steady, distorted rhythm guitar, Jim Roth's bass, and Jason Albertini's echoing drums provide a firm foundation over which Johnson multi-tracks frenetic guitar leads, with the song's latter half consisting of a meandering two-minute-long solo, perhaps in tribute to his Dinosaur days. The beautiful, ghostly "Hidden Away" offers a softer take on this concept, with Built to Spill's Brett Netson guesting on guitar and Roth adding pedal steel and slide.
In an interview a few years back, Johnson mentioned that fellow Oregon native and late minimalist Raymond Carver was his favorite writer. Much like Carver's exquisite short stories, Johnson's artful songs are economical narratives, sad tales of loss that sorrowfully smile their way around the pit of despair without actually falling in. The cover of his previous (and best) album, I Feel Alright, shows a man, eyes closed, passed out on a bar, a beer bottle sharing the foreground. That cover shot may ultimately be the single best portrait of the Mike Johnson experience; his songs suggest a lot of late nights and too many sunrises seen through bleary, bloodshot eyes. And you needn't know Eitzel or Cohen to know how that feels.