Classic old school throwback rock and roll, rhythm and blues records with Americana twists is the super-hot thing in music right now, whether you’re working the indie fest circuit or in the mainstream. But at some point it can become too much, especially when it seems like nearly every record you listen to is leaning on this approach, in some way or another, to recapture some long lost authenticity in the music. With Neil Gregory Johnson, the throwback vibe is his native sound though. That’s who he is as an artist, instead of something he’s chasing because it’s hot.
On running through Johnson’s EP, “Extended Play Catalogue Vol. 1”, fans and taste-makers will soon be fixing their gaze upon his creative relationship with recording engineer and producer Sean Flora (Cake, The Shins, Black Keys). But it won’t take long to see that while Southern roots run deep in his music, he’s more interested in bringing back the groove and sweat of soul, R&B and Southern rock legacy than adding to the bro country ranks.
No matter who he works with, and where he lives, which incidentally is Douglas County, Oregon, Neil Gregory Johnson will likely stand out on the strength of his voice and songwriting alone. He possesses a marvelous tenor that he nestles into comfortably and pushes to its limits when the mood or music encourages him to do so. “Three Days On The Wagon” – a jumpy, harmonica and guitar-driven barn raiser, finds him in fiery form, with his voice and energetic vibe ready to kick the saloon doors open.
There’s a sneakiness to some of these tunes that sit at the core of the EP – a very radio-friendly take on a throwback sound that reveals how Johnson perfectly inflects his voice between effective and enchanting. That’s nowhere more clear than with the upbeat “I Want To Drink Beer With You”.
It’s just so hard not to stomp your foot, nod your head, and like this song. But the absolute radio-killer is just around the corner, and it comes in the shape of “Loving and Leaving”. This is the type of bluesy love song John Mayer sings to make a living. This track really gets under your skin, from the vocals to the instrumentation, it is simply sublime.
“Losers Weep”, is another excellent offering, and again, within what feels like Neil Gregory Johnson’s ‘inner’ voice, with production that fits the song and the sentiment, instead of getting swept up in any idea of making some kind of stylish expression itself and losing touch on what’s being said. It’s just a ‘song’, and as such, doesn’t let styling get in the way.
Music doesn’t really get purer and more affecting than this. “Sleep When I Die” more or less follows the same production principles as the aforementioned song, only here Johnson pushes his voice into those resonating angles that makes one sit up and take note.
“Well Kept” is a slinky love song cut through with shimmering keys and a gritty vocal performance that feels really good. This is one of those ballady tunes that eschews genres and would find a perfect placement in any playlist. It works so well because the songwriting seems to take a cue from a time when popular music didn’t suck and the expressions were heartfelt and real, and most music wasn’t created on commercial pretenses.
To be honest, this sentiment can be spread out across the entire EP. There’s more than enough fuel in “Extended Play Catalogue Vol. 1’s” tank to heartily recommend it, and should guarantee Neil Gregory Johnson a clear shot at the big time.