It’s been eight years since Freedy Johnston’s last album, so what does he open with on this new one but an accordion and a ukulele. Welcome back Freedy, welcome back.
Recorded in Nashville at House of David, a studio run by multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin and owned by legendary Nashville session man David Briggs (Elvis Presley’s last keyboard player), the album has a slick and polished sheen that’s Music-City comfortable yet retains an occasional grittiness.
“Lonely Penny,” the opening track, is like an aural psychological ink blot, but instead of a candlestick or two faces, do you see a copper coin or a forlorn girl named Penny? Or is it a worn and well-traveled wheatback penny — the lowliest of coins — or the troubadour himself? Such are the tantalizingly puzzling metaphors cast about on this album. Even the catchy, radio-friendly “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl” is a playful paradox full of grinning irony. If that weren’t enough, Richard McLaurin plays a mean Glockenspiel on this one.
There’s a distinctly ’70s feel here, thanks mainly to Steve Herman’s flugelhorn on “The Devil Raises His Own” and “What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight.” Throughout the journey, Freedy always returns to the city (the one that never sleeps, as he lived across the river in Hoboken back in ’92, and is currently based in Manhattan), with images that evoke a melancholy sense of place: the titular location in “Central Station” (Grand Central) and its celestial ceiling that isn’t for wishing, the downtown trains and the recurring image of rain washing away a city’s dark past, or at least the past of its residents. Rain has always symbolized rebirth, and that sure seems appropriate here.
“It’s Gonna Come Back to You” exists somewhere between Buddy Holly and Eddie Rabbitt, with the slightest touch of Marshall Crenshaw. Enough of the comparisons — after all, Freedy is his own man.
The title cut, “Rain on the City,” is rife with metaphors that swirl in a poetic storm gutter, finally comparing humanity to rain: “We collide and change, and fall again on some city day and help somebody wash something away.” The song is simply hypnotic.
“The Other Side of Love” has a Ronettes-like beat and tambourine flourishes while featuring Briggs’ flowery Wurliltzer. “The Kind of Love We’re In” is pure samba-lite in direct contrast to biting lyrics about a relationship in the dumper. The lilting and kicky Hammond B3 from John Lancaster sounds like a sly nod to the ghost of Walter Wanderley.
This album is a travelogue chockablock with missives from a troubadour who has crystal clear vision and impressive powers of observation. And he can still rock.
So, Freedy, don’t be such a stranger, ok?
Check out Freedy’s website for sample cuts and blog entries from the man himself.