What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Ethan Johns – The Reckoning

Avant-garde music is sort of research music. You’re glad someone’s done it but you don’t necessarily want to listen to it.
Brian Eno

I felt obligated to change music to art, the same way that Galileo proved the Earth was round to the world and that the Sun did not stand still.
Phil Spector

By now all rock bands are wise enough to be suspicious of music industry scum.
Steve Albini

And what do those 3 men have in common? No don’t worry Eno & Albini haven’t had a run in with the law, they are of course all famous producers. Interestingly they were also all famous originally for being musicians before they went onto become arguably even more famous for their production work. Producers are the unsung heroes of the music industry. They are the layer of varnish to a band’s Chippendale furniture, the micro herbs to their Michelin Star meal, the frame to their Picasso Painting. They are the finishing touch to a band’s songwriting genius, only quite often producers are far more than that.

Anyone who’s ever been in a band will probably remember the first time they stumbled into a studio; it’s completely baffling! You’re used to microphones sure, but what does that giant desk full of buttons do, what’s that stack of bleeping machines and whirling tape reels for, and where’s the kettle?

There’s obviously far more to production that just engineering the record, a good producer will work with the band to unleash the songs potential, they’ll point out that maybe seven minutes of feedback drenched guitar soloing wasn’t what the label was after, or the audience, or anyone with ears! They’ll tweak, and preen and perfect the recording, they’ll hear the detail most sets of ears can’t even locate, and they’ll tell you that take was shit and you should do it again, or quite often tell you that actually that take will do, because we’re running out of time, on a tight budget and you’re being a primadonna about it.

Good producers need good songs, good songs need good producers. As Steve Albini put it “I’m pretty good, but I’m not good enough to turn a trout into a sausage, or the other way round”

So here’s to the producers, the unsung heroes, who take brilliant bands and turn them into brilliant albums, and normally make a really good pot of coffee into the bargain.

ETHAN JOHNS – THE RECKONING

Glyn Johns produced records by The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. His brother Andy Johns produced Marquee Moon by Television. His son Ethan has worked with Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and Paul McCartney. The Johns are arguably the most high-profile production family in the history of music, in fact off the top of my head they’re the only family of producers in the history of music!

I first came across Ethan as the producer of Ryan Adam’s seminal debut album Heartbreaker. Heartbreaker was probably my first exposure to alt-country, the first time I’d ever loved the twang of a slide guitar and the shuffle of a brushed snare drum, the first time I realised songs could be simple and emotional without being slushy balladeering. It was frankly brilliant, and it was brilliantly produced. Ethan worked on the first three Ryan Adams records, and then returned to production duties for 29, his eight studio album.

On this, Ethan Johns’ second album, Ryan has repaid the favour, the two swapping to the other side of the recording booth, with Ryan behind the mixing desk and Ethan in the live room. It must frankly have been a fairly surreal experience, but then on Ethan’s 2012 debut, If Not Now Then When?, the mixing was done by none other than Glyn Johns, so maybe in comparison working with Ryan might have been entirely normal!

Ryan Adams appears to be stepping up his production work, odd timing for a man who almost lost his hearing a few years back, but perhaps he’s trying to make the most of his ears while they’re still working. As well as working with Ethan on this record, he’s also co-produced, alongside Beck, the upcoming Jenny Lewis album, and if the early reviews are anything to go by, the results are somewhat spectacular.

This however, for all it’s super-producer ropes in his super friends potential, is a record that’s far more than that. This is unquestionably Ethan Johns stepping out of the shadows of his own career and proving his worth as a solo artist. Admittedly he’d already done that on his excellent debut, but perhaps now it’s not just a one off, people will take him a little more seriously as a songwriter in his own right.

Opening track, Go Slow, sets the template for this album. A dark twanging acoustic gives way to some rapid Bert Jansch inspired finger picking, and his rich, clear, undeniably folky vocal. A gentle backing of harmonium, initially buried in the mix gradually unveils itself, it’s beautifully subtle and a wonderful undercurrent to the tale of “Thomas the younger, born of the summer rain” and his brother “James Younger a few year the older, a good heart with a dark turn of mind”. It’s one of those tracks that from the outside seems deceptively simple, you have to really listen to hear anything beyond the acoustic and vocal, but there’s beautiful little production techniques throughout, little flourishes of xylophone, and what could almost be breaking glass in the background, adding detail to proceedings and keeping the track from growing repetitive.

The major influence on the record appears to be the British folk scene of the 60s and 70s, whilst many a contemporary artist has been labelled folk in recent years, few have got as close to sounding like Pentangle. Whilst the likes of Laura Marling and Mumford & Son’s undeniably carry folks influence into their music, they remain to all essential purposes pop musicians. The same can not be said for Ethan, one listen to second track, Dry Morning, and you know you’re not in major label territory, and Dry Morning is probably the most populist thing here! There are hints of 100 Acres of Sycamore era Fionn Regan, where he’d never sounded more like Nick Drake, and it’s all the better for it’s complexity.

Part of the reason that Ethan makes such a convincing folk musician, is how weather worn he sounds, he’s only in his mid-40s, but he sounds like he could easily be 75. The Fool, is a beautiful lilting folk tune, a delightfully down beat love song of sorts. “One day and it won’t be soon, you’re going to have me acting like a fool, dancing in the shadows of the moon” he sings, with a sense of inescapable destiny. Even his lyrics seem to be borrowed from the classic folk tradition, it’s all “turns of the day” and “hours passing promise in the night” the sort of phrases nobody ever actually uses beyond folk songs! If it all sounds quaint and nostalgia driven, it might be, but it’s so authentic that it feels less like a tribute and more like a contemporary who just happened to be born 40 years too late.

For the most part Ethan sticks to the same blue-print; the exception is Talking Talking Blues, where he comes across all deep-south blues rocker. His voice suddenly develops a new found gravelly power, he sounds not unlike Mark Lanegan. The song too is a complete detour, all twanging, sleazy blues driven lead guitar, and a wall of distortion below it. Sadly Ethan is less convincing in this mode, and whilst he might have been reaching for Nick Cave, he falls a tad short of the mark, and sounds a bit like an average pub rocker: a rare slip up in this impressive collection.

Ethan is better when he returns to what he does so well, and when he returns to the albums anti-hero James Younger on “The Lo Down Ballad of James Younger” it is wonderful. Lines like “I remember you told me you had Younger’s blood, the line of your jaw gave you credence” roll off his tongue as like all great folk singers he manages to make the listener genuinely interested in the characters.

Blackheart, again see’s the influence of blues rock loom large, though here it’s paired to some great finger picking, and it’s far more convincing. The chorus, bursts out of the song with a genuinely shocking blast of noise “blackheart, blackheart, cut out his blackheart” he sings with guttural yelp, to a backing of crashing cymbals and blazing, distorted guitars.

The closing pair of tracks are two of the best on the album. You Changed, which gives the guitar and vocal template a gentle re-working via the presence of a soaring violin, is a beautiful thing. Lyrically we find Ethan “humbled by your love” and asking someone to “carve this heart of stone” so he can “trade it for my own.” This Modern London, sees his gentle acoustic played out over field recordings of the city it pays tribute to, cars role by in the background, almost as if he’s busking on the South Bank. It’s a reflective tale of how “so soon we forget what it was that brought us here, distracted by nothing, we watch it float away” it’s as perfect a folk song as you’ll hear all year, and a worthy additions to list of great songs about the capital.

This album’s a triumph, an example of how even a medium as old and oft-repeated as folk music can still carry such a punch. Ethan Johns’ time behind the recording desk was clearly well spent, as he’s now emerged a fully fledged musician in his own right, more than ready to go it alone and stamp his own mark on the musical world, he might even have to give up the day job!

The Reckoning is out now on Three Crows Records. Ethan Johns plays Hyde Park with Neil Young this Saturday

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