I count down the days to a new Freedy Johnston record like I used to anticipate releases from the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, XTC, and even Macca back in the 1970s. You kinda know what’s coming – solidly melodic and carefully crafted songs – but the delight is in where he takes it this time. After 24 hours of constantly playing the new album I can reveal that with Back On The Road To You Johnston has done it again. Now at this point scribes usually say things like ‘this is Johnston’s strongest effort in years’ but, hey, the quality of this artist’s work has never really flagged, even if public interest sometimes has. Johnston is like a half buried national treasure, feted by the music mainstream whenever they happen to stumble across a new recording. Stylistically the new LP falls somewhere between Nick Lowe and John Hiatt, with the former’s ear for hooky tunes and the latter’s eye for idiosyncratic narrative detail. But, then again, Johnston’s not really like anyone else. His songs develop in wonderfully unusual ways, his vocals pause in delightfully awkward places. I mean, just listen to how he tucks the ‘living the dream’ line into the pause before launching into the chorus of “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl.” The guy’s got a painter’s precision in detailing his songs.
The record opens on familiar ground with title track “Back on the Road to You.” Is this poppy Americana or just something offered up from Freedy Johnston central casting? Love the electric piano break. One could easily imagine the Everly Brothers ripping through this one. Then there’s “There Goes a Brooklyn Girl,” a song that conjures up terms like ‘instant classic’. The track surely joins the pantheon of Johnston’s most celebrated singles, its construction and execution simply confirmation of his mastery of the popular song form. Another immediate ‘instant replay’ tune is “Madeline’s Eye” with its subtle hooks and alluring steel guitar work. On three songs Johnston brings in some featured vocal accompaniment but the results hardly amount to any kind of star turn. Instead Aimee Mann, Susan Cowsill and Susanna Hoffs apply their impressive vocal talents to deftly serve the tunes, adding subtle harmonies on the countryfied “Darlin’,” the more poprocking “The Power of Love,” and the lilting midtempo ballad “That’s Life” respectively. Things rock up on “Tryin’ to Move On” with its more Dave Edmunds boogie feel. Meanwhile “Somewhere Love” creates a 1970s soft rock ambience, like a stroll along the beach accompanied by a Neal Sedaka song. But the strings that come in at the one and half minute mark elevate the proceedings, adding an exquisite splash of classy sophistication. And the spacey keyboards that define the instrumental break don’t hurt either. “Trick of the Light” has this sunny 1970s summer ballad feel as well. The album closes with the suitably ‘end of a night of drinking’ song “The I Really Miss Ya Blues.” It’s a lovely tune made even more impressive by its inspired organ swells.
The stars have aligned on Back On The Road To You. The album looks good with its smartly designed cover and what’s inside is a typical demonstration of Freedy Johnston’s considerable skills as a songwriter and performer. Buy this album and see this performer live. He may just be one of the last greats of this genre.