I once saw Noahjohn open for Neko Case in Madison, Wisconsin. I admit, they were pretty bad. At the time they seemed to be trying a bit too hard to be a country band; their sound was contrived and not all that interesting. A few days later, founding member Carl Johns came into the pet supply store in which I worked to purchase some cat litter. I really wanted to tell him how I felt about his band’s performance, how it betrayed all the superlatives espoused in an article about Noahjohn that appeared in that month’s issue of New Music Monthly. However, I was loath to be so derisive and instead merely said it was a good show, sharing my thoughts primarily on Neko’s set and about the insurgent country scene brewing in Madison with mention of his band in the periphery. With that said, I must confess that I was somewhat apprehensive when requesting to review Water Hymns, the band’s latest effort. But since I now live back on the East coast, I was feeling homesick.
Water Hymns shares little semblance with the performance I saw that night. Its lush and somber textures (both instrumental and lyrical), preclude Noahjohn from being pigeon-holed as “country.” The first two tracks evoke a lulling melancholy that is not unlike what one would expect from Arab Strap or Bedhead. It is not necessarily the quiet-loud-quiet formula that Noahjohn borrows from such bands, but a dour mellifluous that exposes the band=EDs vulnerable essence. This darkness resonates until the album’s end, at times taking on a subtle country inflection, suggesting that the band has not completely abandoned their roots. Throughout, imagery of Americana, accented by an aching viola and wailing lap steel, are copious. “Two Members” sounds a lot like early Whiskeytown, while “Ballad of William Roy” is reminiscent of Will Oldham. With inimitable dexterity, Carl Johns weaves haunting lyrics around stark and visceral soundscapes: “The current was too strong that day/She couldn’t swim back to shore/He tried to help and there he joined her/Then a stranger pulled her in but could not rescue William/And the ocean it took him away/Left his wife a widow at 23/Stranded all alone with no way to get back home/She could never really go back home.” It is this eerily sincere storytelling, much like that of Sixteen Horsepower’s David Eugene Edwards, that draws the listener into the surreal shadows of Johns’s imagination. Water Hymns is Gothic Americana at its finest.