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Will Johnson - Vultures Await

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Artist: Will Johnson

Album: Vultures Await

Label: Misra

Review date: Nov. 4, 2004

Since 1996, Texan songwriter Will Johnson has released nine albums, six with his band Centro-matic, two with Centro-matic side project South San Gabriel, and 2002's solo album Murder of Tides. Vultures Await, his second solo release, may not be the most ambitious move in his musical trajectory, but stands out as some of the most affecting, haunting music Johnson has ever recorded.

Lacking the fuzzed-out rock guitars of Centro-matic, Vultures Await is a bare-bones affair in which Johnson plays all instruments save the fiddle, which is provided by Centro-matic band mate Scott Danborn. Pianos, acoustic guitars and steady, no-frills drumming make up most of the quiet musical horizon, to which Johnson's gravely vocals stand out in stark contrast, even more so than on his previous releases. It's a voice that can either captivate or turn-off, and Vultures Await contains moments of both. Opener "Catherine Dupree" features Johnson trying a little too hard to channel Tom Waits, while the title track, with its falsetto harmonies, sounds stunning.

Johnson's songs have always been grounded in a mix of Southern Americana and noisy art-rock, and considering the publicity and relative success of Centro-matic's last album, Love You Just the Same, he may just be one of the key figures in redefining the moniker "alt.country" this decade. Thus, it's a bit of a surprise that Johnson has chosen to release some of his finest songs in what seem to be a premature, almost demo state. But taken out of the context of Johnson's other work, it stands as a cohesive record, full of plaintive ballads reminiscent of My Morning Jacket's quieter moments. Just when the minimal instrumentation seems to be leading nowhere, a simple drum or a few reverb-heavy guitar notes come sliding in and sound profound in their simplicity. Such is the case in "Closing Down My House," which, at the album's halfway mark, is a welcome bit of upbeat pop, if only in contrast to somber tone surrounding it.

Lyrically, Vultures Await has Johnson at his most inventive. "Catherine Dupree" is the tale of a woman who burns down her alma matter, and is one of Johnson's finest moments of narration. Even the album's closer, cringe-worthingly titled "Nothin' but Godzilla," manages to be a tender request for a lover's commitment. In tune with the nakedness of the album's sound, Johnson's lyrics are equally more straightforward and poetic than on previous releases. Like much of the album, it is a quality that comes with time. But there is a subtle brilliance to Vultures Await that can not be found in Johnson's other work. It is confident in its hollowness, and is the better for it.

By Jon Pitt

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