Freedy Johnston

Freedy Johnston

Freedy Johnston

Rain on the City

Bar None

It’s good to have Freedy Johnston back. Nearly nine years since the melancholy Midwestern troubadour’s last album of originals, Right Between the Promises, he returns with arguably his best record since the early ’90s classic records Can You Fly? and This Perfect World. And though Rain On the City may not have the depth of those records, its unique charms are apparent right from the get-go.

Backed by ukulele and accordion, Johnston sounds great on opener “Lonely Penny,” which could almost be a lost Neil Finn track. Vocally though, Johnston’s slightly hoarse tenor has always reminded me more of Feargal Sharkey of the Irish New Wave band, The Undertones.

Loneliness never sounded better (except for maybe on “Eleanor Rigby”) than on the next tune, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl,” which, all things musically being equal, would be the first of several monster hit singles from this record. Pounding piano, a throbbing rhythm section, multi-tracked harmony vocals, surging guitars — it has all the bells and whistles of a classic.

Producer Richard McLaurin seems to know instinctively how to surround Johnston’s voice with just the right instrumentation. And not even the noir-ish title and imagery of the title track and others can hide the fact that this is Johnston’s brightest-sounding, cheeriest record. It certainly won’t be mistaken for 1999’s dark and disappointing Blue Days, Black Nights at any rate.

Using a higher register, his voice careens around the corners of another great pop song and should-be hit on “Venus Is Her Name.” For that matter, “The Other Side of Love” would sound great on the radio as well.

The flugelhorn-colored “The Devil Raises His Own” has an effortless cool and smooth confidence, as does the gentle bossa nova “The Kind of Love We’re In.”

Twangier sounds figure prominently on the full-throated “Livin’ Too Close to the Rio Grande,” the bouncy, Buddy Holly-like “It’s Gonna Come Back to You,” and the pedal steel-flavored “Central Station.”

The set wraps up with “What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight,” which hearkens back to the more melancholy sounds of his early work.

But whatever Johnston throws out, it all seems to work here. Rain On the City is a welcome return from an artist firing on all cylinders once again.

Freedy Johnston: www.freedyjohnston.com

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