Given a recording as intimate and exhilarating as Martha Johnson’s SOLO ONE, the last thing you’d expect as an entry point to a review of this truly fine new album (and compact disc) of songs in a variety of styles is the production.
Nevertheless, as Johnson’s first collection for grown-ups apart from Martha and the Muffins demonstrates, a great popular music collection – the kind that makes those “best” lists – can result when the performance, the strength of the songwriting and the production are all in balance.
In other words, while the production shouldn’t overpower the strength of the performance and the songwriting, but neither should it leave a recording seeming dry, flat and listless.
While Johnson’s new release is, as we’ve said, intimate, there is a whole lot (pardon my informality) of production here. There are all kinds of tones and effects here and they are used with such precision as little touches and enhancements that glean like little stars across the breadth of this collection.
This may seem hard to grasp but effects and synthetic or enhanced tones here act very much like sophisticated, coordinated stage lighting – not necesarily an over-the-top lighting extravaganza but something more subtle and ingenious.
Now let me get this out of the way: Martha Johnson has always been associated with stellar production. Three of Martha & the Muffins eight LPs (the band formed in Toronto in 1977 and had a worldwide hit with “Echo Beach” in 1980) helped cement the reputation of young producer Daniel Lanois.
SOLO One is something is something special, however. In the liner notes, Johnson credits producer Ray Dillard for helping her record “the style, sentiment and flow of emotion” she hoped for when he agreed to become involved. Johnson clearly was thinking of the production integrally.
Johnson and Mark Gane also share some of the production credit and all three engineered and mixed the music.
There is simply no tiring of listening to this disc. The depth and texture of the music overall is part of the reason. So is the strength, quality and sincerity of Johnson’s vocals and the instrumentation.
Also, several styles are represented – great for “strum-along” listeners, by the way.
A trio of folk acoustic songs with Ron Sexsmith strumming and singing backing vocals highlight the collection. “See Saw Eyes” has a 70s country rock feel – I’m thinking Poco, America, etc. But there is more going on here. Nasal and throaty simultaneously, Sexsmith’s voice, and his “sons of the prairie dogs” strum (my words – try not to think about them) become a sort of velvet glove for Johnson’s supple, clear and shall I say slender vocal, by that meaning she’s singing powerfully without turning up the volume.
It’s a very poignant song … sometimes it’s the ones that are a little sad that make the biggest impression.
Did I mention effects? Mark Gane, whose guitar work offers more than the word “component” could ever describe – uses effects you might associate more with – well, America, as we’ve noted, but also Badfinger, etc. – than with folk music on this disc – is wonderful on this cut as on others … so interesting in the context.
You know — the percussion on this track is simply Dillard and tambourine and maracas. Astonishing. And the reverb is as thick as tapioca pudding. It works wonderfully.
“Show Me How” occupies a similar electro-acoustic environment with the addition of Don Bray on Hawaiian baritone slide top guitar and Fergus Marsh on electric upright bass. It’s lovely. A sophisticated love song, it occupies a sort of 60s niche I sort of want to call “Canyon” — which I seem to have managed to do.
Adding Max Dyer’s cello to the small combo of Johnson, Sexsmith and Dillard (on cajon) brings a rewarding lushness to this “Canyon” segment of the album in “I Wouldn’t Change a Day.” This song brings the sort of 1960s Mexican/Southwest found on Bob Dylan’s Desire album, among many, many others. It’s the conviction behind the singing, however, that shines through this group of tunes, however. A lesser performance might have left us only with the experience of something vaguely quaint. No such danger here.
We’re talking about production yet we’ve only mentioned the most accessible, least challenging and most nearly acoustic tracks – in other words, we’ve got CBC and NPR covered, but we have to move on to the disc’s crowning glory which is an adult-oriented rock sleeper in here: “Coming Through the Green.”
Come down a road lined in sugar
where the water and the sky are one
painted clouds with silver linings …
Now not everyone is going to immediately grasp what the “green” is and precisely what is coming through it. It’s best left like that. That’s part of the beauty of the skill of Johnson and certain other lyricists – their diction is very precise and only appears to be vague at times.
Still it seems this is somewhere I have always been
Coming through the green
There is what seems to be a vast array of tones on this track but we could probably break it down to a short description – some wah on Gane’s guitar as he pops little string-dampened riffs reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s most familiar work, his glockenspiel playing at the end of the cut, the particular way the drum kit (Dillard) is recorded and the cymbal hits, the echo and perhaps some heavy filter effects on the kitchen chorus.
Echoes merge the end of this delicious tune into a true sound canvas that is the collection’s most challenging number, “No Man’s Land,” a tune which prompts the listener to consider certain questions about things which may seem, on the surface to be ambiguous. There’s some gravitas here, to be sure, and the painterly application of sound to represent emotion, discovery, identity, takes us places.
It’s funny how those “little” things like the way the drum rolls are recorded on “Remembrance Day” to sound more ominous, more imposing, as if to suggest martial drums on a battlefield, contribute so much to the success of this album. There is the almost sitar-like, brief guitar solo, a guitar made to rumble. And consider the lines of poetry:
It’s all so delicate, so delicate to me
Before the river turned to ice,
for just a moment we had it right
My faith escapes me still I pray
There is much more to this collection. Let listeners discover entry points of their own. For myself it’s a recording in which every sound – and there are quite a few of them — seems directed at certain emotional centers. I could almost call it a “sonic alphabet of emotions.”
There is an understanding of musical space – that voids, both tonally and rhythmically – carry emotional content. For example, there seems to be way more “room” in this music than, say, in a representative Beck album, although both artists explore with tones, effects, rhythms, etc. Comparisons are almost always awkward, of course. Artists have different concerns and different approaches and the finished products reflect them.
The listener would be well served to check out SOLO ONE and perhaps to further explore the work of Martha Johnson and her allies.