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Jonny / Matt Berry - Jonny / Witchazel

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Artist: Jonny / Matt Berry

Album: Jonny / Witchazel

Label: Merge / Acid Jazz

Review date: Apr. 27, 2011

The first (and probably last) album by Jonny could pass for Brinsley Schwarz outtakes. Be still, all you bald, sweaty men, it ain’t like that. Well, maybe it is. Probably just as dull as what you might find inside, though, at that point before Nick Lowe found his muse and the rest of them found Graham Parker. It’s a perfectly serviceable, and greatly unexciting side project, a collaboration between songwriters (here, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub, and Euros Childs of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci), backed by the fifth guy in TFC and one of the BMX Bandits. Boasting a “written-and-recorded-in-ten-days” spiel, it’s one of those records that gets mired down in itself as it plays on.

These are generally silly songs, though they’re not necessarily played for laughs. Some pillage the past (“Goldmine” nicks all but the memorable two notes and the falsetto out of the Castaways’ “Liar Liar,” and more than a few crib The Beatles but hard), but Jonny works more as a slightly abstracted tribute that I’m sure was a fun exercise to create, if not necessarily to listen to. Blake’s songs should be strained out of the mix and held at ransom until he realizes that five or more years are too long of a wait between Teenage Fanclub records. (They were damn near the best band I saw last year, and they don’t get the respect that those rounding the corner on 20 years in the business really deserve.) Childs’ songs, I can take or leave, but I’m probably gonna leave ‘em – two exciting minutes of “Cave Dance” turns into 11 nightmarish ones, the original excitement collapsing for the sake of art rock. Likewise, songs like “Bread” would have been better left in the back pages of a Cochise record, or something Jethro Tull wouldn’t have left in its current state. Fans need only apply. We all know these guys can do better; that they don’t is somewhat of a shame.

Funnily enough, fans might be the only audience for a record made by Matt Berry, a man better known for his comedic talents (“The IT Crowd,” “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”) than his musical output. The impression that Berry gives is definitely not that of one who would set out to make a faithful, occasionally brilliant folk-prog record for these modern times, but that’s precisely what happened. Berry’s ludicrous, laddish English sleazebag roles started giving off a musical twinge, particularly on his one-and-done BBC series with Rich Fulcher, “Snuff Box.”. Witchazel was originally released by the artist on his website, as a digital gift to fans, but now finds proper physical release (at least in his native land of England).

There are laughs here, if you find orgasm noises, musings of an old herdsman watching his flock “strain to excrete,” or the general absurdity of a title like “Accident at a Harvest Festival.” But through it all, the music takes precedent, the songs are played straight, and the end result is more of a winning, wistful lament for times of old than a gag, and ultimately more of a tribute to the idyllic times of fantasy and horror this sort of music often recalls, the history and passion deep in its marrow as well as on its skin. Berry plays most of the instruments here — quite admirably, at that — and his compositions don’t take any easy paths, but also don’t wander into the realm of the needlessly complex (this is not a Nucleus record). The song cycle touches on so many period details of the early ‘70s folk scene that Witchazel runs the risk of running over Berry’s narrative arc, one of care and safety (“A Song for Rosie,”), treatises on aging (“Look At My Book”), tell-tale signs of mania from societal repression (the schizophrenic opus “The Pheasant,” switching modes and analog synth banks as often as highway drivers switch lanes), and the dreamlike wonder that colors our everyday lives (“The Badger’s Wake”).

It’s too early to tell if Berry missed his calling as a songwriter, but even with the patina of irony on Witchazel (the Paul McCartney impression on “Rain Came Down,” or the sounds of vigorous orgasmic bliss on “From the Manger to the Mortuary” speak to this), he remembers to keep the songs and the sentiments at the forefront, and in turn has made quite a meaningful and wondrous work; light enough to make for an easy listen but compelling enough to bring you back. The people of Jonny forgot this rule outright, or more likely didn’t consider it in service of having fun. Both are valid, but the Generals were due. The funnyman wins the day. And what strange days they are, when the joke records are serious and the serious records not much more than jokes.

By Doug Mosurock

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