Scott Albert Johnson’s new record “Going Somewhere” literally starts with a bang–a big drum groove–that is soon capped with feverish amped harmonica whose lines pay homage to the blues tradition without ever directly invoking it. Throughout this record, on every track of which Johnson sings lead, plays harmonica, and produced or co-produced–he also wrote or co-wrote every track except for covers of Peter Gabriel’s “I Don’t Remember” and Brett Winston’s “Haunt My Dreams”–the songs are memorable, the singing intense, and the harmonica new and powerful, often in surprising ways. It’s a great record if you’re into rock n’ roll; in fact it’s the most daring rock harmonica record since the early 1990s, when Blues Traveler came along to shake everybody up with a completely different take on the instrument.
Rock n’ roll is about outsize emotions and gestures, and this record is full of them. The production is big and colorful, often very 1980s-synthpop-influenced, especially on those pieces where Johnson adds color to the harmonicas with effects. (That Peter Gabriel tune fits right in with this program.) Johnson has deployed no less than 5 guitarists, 3 bassists, and 6 drummers among the album’s nine tracks, and he’s chosen well. Every track has the right players for the groove, and the guitarists complement the harp brilliantly, thank you. Johnson’s singing is typically upfront and impassioned, as befits the style and the material.
The record’s liner notes mention only Lone Wolf harmonica gear, but you very quickly hear other sounds in the mix, and a look at Johnson’s recording notes confirm that he used a Digitech RP200 running tweaked versions of my patch set for Digitech RP for many of the harmonica parts. I hear a lot of phase shifters and autowahs in these pieces; “If I Only Knew The Words,” an anthemic rocker with a huge chorus, includes phase-shifted and otherwise effected harmonica that’s practically indistinguishable from a synth, and “I Don’t Remember” ends with an extended jam between two heavily effected harmonicas whose wickedly twisted lines climax in an amped-up and reverbed lead harp that’s about as big as it gets.
The harmonica is new, different, and captivating
Did I mention that Johnson’s harmonica style is new and different? He’s clearly got influences, one of which is apparently John Popper. But I doubt that anyone hearing Johnson would mistake him for Popper; his note choices and phrasing are very different from Popper’s, often jazz-influenced, with a lot more space than Popper usually leaves in his solos. Johnson often plays fast, but he’s not just spraying notes around; his lines resolve, sometimes at length, but like the title of the record, you always get the feeling that he’s going somewhere. Like Popper, he often transitions over wide spaces in his lines with a glissando or a rapid burst of notes. Also like Popper, his tone is brighter and lighter than a traditional blues harp. He’s got plenty of power, but it’s a very different kind of power than you hear from a traditional blues player (like Grant Dermody, whose “Sun Might Shine on Me” I reviewed recently on this blog.) I’ve spent a lot of time listening to this record to pick up on what he’s doing here, exactly because it’s so different from the usual harmonica trick bag, and I suspect a lot of other players will too.
Great Songs, Great Singing, Great Playing
After the shattering climax of “I Don’t Remember,” the record gives us “Simply Human,” an attractive synth-poppy piece that asks us, in the context of a robot soliloquy (“My hands… are not made of skin…”), what it means to be a human being. Johnson serves up solos on acoustic harmonica and phase-shifted harmonica, both sounding eerily natural and synthetic at once. The last piece on the record is “Fragments,” an emotional workout for voice, acoustic harp, and piano. It’s a stripped down song, but it’s as big and lush with feeling as anything else on the record.
Of the record’s nine pieces, two–the jokey country music sendups “Jailbird” and “A Bigger Gun”–left me cold. The rest of “Going Somewhere” knocks me out, and I’ve listened to it over and over in the last few weeks, marveling at the invention in Johnson’s lines and the glorious settings he’s provided for them. This record deserves to be widely heard.