Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jillette Johnson: Water in a Whale

Since there's nothing much happening on the home front (besides my two-year-old's decision to start referring to his poops as "monster trucks", of course), we're going to cut straight to the chase.  And since this is Jillette Johnson's first full-length album (she released a five-song EP last August), I figure I might even be able to teach you a little somethin'-somethin' about her.  So here's what I've got: according to Wikipedia, Johnson is from New York, and she turned down a stint on The Voice to pursue her music career (correct me if I'm wrong, but participating in a singing show might also help a singer succeed???).  Either way, Johnson tells Elle that the album is "about being a young woman in New York, trying to make sense of the world around her.  It's about trying to cope and not be bitter, and trying to find silver linings under every stumble," and further explains to Sarah's Musical Kitchen that "New York has hugely influenced me. There’s so much to draw inspiration from. I really think it’s the epicenter of the universe, so much beauty to inspire.”  Which pretty much covers it since, as I mentioned, I couldn't find a ton of stuff about her in the first place.

So let's talk about the music.  Johnson plays piano and sings, and those two elements are the core of each and every track on this album.  In my Internet forays, I've also seen her compared to everyone from Tori Amos to Fiona Apple to Adele to Sarah Bareilles, which should give you a further indication about her sound.  Or in other words, she's quirky, honest, emotional, and often over-the-top, with deeper-than-average lyrics alongside a splash of a clearly-affected vocal quality (tell me I'm wrong).  For example, second track "Cameron", which Johnson tells Elle is "about a little boy who identifies as a girl", relies on a slowly-building piano riff that swells with strings during the first chorus and then adds drums and other orchestral elements to poignant effect just after ("Cameron runs in drag/Makes his father mad/Since he was a little boy/He always felt more comfortable in lipstick"), and "Last Bus Out" makes interesting use of Auto-tuning to add a weird sexiness to the tune's yet-again huge choruses and fully-instrumented swagger ("What if I never make it to the bus stop/Never get on").  There's also "Basset Hound", which is probably one of the most over-dramatic of the lot, with its pantingly lovestruck lyrics, swaying dark-Disney background jingles, and breathy exhortations ("I wanna follow you around/Like a dog like a dog like a basset hound").

And that's pretty much where I'm going to leave my attempt at a description of the tracks, since I can only find so many different words for dramatic, piano-based music.  However, that's certainly not all I have to say about the album, since there are still plenty of MY feelings to talk about as well.  First and foremost, then, I have to mention that my first listen did no favors for this album: Johnson is about as subtle as my two-year-old when he's hungry for snacks (he stands next to the cabinet and karate kicks it while yelling "I want a 'nack, Mama!"), and I've never been one for deep singer-songwriters either.  And to top it all off, while these songs have plenty of subtle textural differences, the in-your-face urgency that explodes at or near the first chorus of each one sandblasts through any details or differentiations you may have been enjoying.  That being said, my second listen proved far more fruitful: although I still think that Johnson's music would be that much more powerful if she learned how to use a silence, what first struck me as artless pomp struck me as youthful exuberance the second time around, and I also realized that her lyrics are undeniably fascinating, if occasionally overwrought.  Furthermore, once I factored her age and experience into the mix (she was born in 1990), the scales tipped even further towards her side - if she's anything like me, after all, she's likely to become more even interesting as her enthusiasm is tempered by world-weariness, and her wide-eyed ingénue quality fades into that certain "aw fuck it, I give up" attitude.  Obviously, I'm joking, but not entirely: my money still says her second record will be better than her first.  Or I guess it might be a big pile of "monster truck", but that seems far less likely.

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