Difficult third album dilemma quashed by slow-burning Madison, Wisconsin quintet
Along with the most devilish ‘tache since Terry-Thomas, NoahJohn singer-songwriter Carl Gustav Johns owns one of the most wiped-out voices in modern American music. Since its first somnambulistic entry on 1999’s Tadpoles through 2001’s superb Had A Burning, and now Water Hymns, its impact is drawn less from singular strength and more from its relationship to musical surroundings. Where both the rustic, semi-nostalgic Tadpoles and the more aggressively raucous Had A Burning used Johns’ delivery for contrast, Water Hymns is the first to fully assimilate singer and song into one impressionistic whole. Its trump card is a use of strings (namely Eena Ballard’s viola and Terminal 4 guest-star Fred Lonberg-Holm’s cello) as mood-setting lead instruments, alongside Johns’ and Stephen Burke’s needly guitars.
Recorded one steaming Chicago day in July 2001, this record oozes doped summer heat from every pore, from the creepy hush of “They Will Call” to narcoleptic closer “Rabbit Reprise”. In between, moments of sublime country, splintered rock and near-gospel bleed through the haze. There are at least a couple of toe-tappers-the quasi-hillbilly reel of “Two Members” and freight-train chug of “First Communion”-but it’s Johns’ vivid conjuring of universal experience via small-town claustrophobia that’s impossible to shake. The latter, for instance (described by its author as a kind of hicksville Graduate), delivers both sin and salvation through its protagonist “knee deep in the creek with Arlene”, while “Promise Breakers” explores private faith while wedged inside a stadium of 60,000 fellow Christians. Most movingly, “Ballad Of William Roy”. is a wake for Johns’ cousin, drowned off the South Carolina coast in 2000.