January 20, 2008

Johnathan Rice: No Ordinary Singer/Songwriter

For such a young guy, Johnathan Rice sure seems disillusioned — if not downright apathetic — on his latest album, Further North. Not that disillusionment and apathy are bad things to sing about; in fact, the 24-year old singer/songwriter does a real fine job of turning such sentiments into uniquely charismatic music.

Rice debuted in 2005 with Trouble Is Real, which not only showcased his deep and somber voice, but also his talent as a songwriter. The music leaned toward a rich sound, often with strings and a full band. This time around on his sophomore release, Rice has scaled the music down to evoke more of a primitive mood, replete with drums that wallop and thud amidst unadorned guitars.

He wrote six of Further North’s eleven tracks with his indie-rocker girlfriend, Jenny Lewis, who complements the album with much the same quirky aesthetic that she exhibits with Rilo Kiley. On “The End of the Affair,” a delicious little ditty that sounds too cute to cut so deep, they trade vicious barbs about saying goodbye. On the acerbic track, “We’re All Stuck Out In The Desert,” Rice sardonically asserts, “She calls the shots/That’s how we get along,” which sort of makes one wonder if he’s referring to his real-life sweetheart.

Two of the album’s most striking tracks feature driving rhythms with an expansive sound. “The Ballad Of King Coyote” rages like a backwoods bonfire, its music stark and rumbling while Rice’s voice booms through with an ominous air. And “THC” spills forth with a transcendental vibe, shrouded in wanton imagery and sonic derangement.

Throughout the album, Rice exhibits a curious vacancy in his voice that belies the brunt of some rather pointed lyrics, thus painting an odd paradox between the words and their expression. At one point during “It Couldn’t Be Me,” as the music sways at a pleasant pace, he sings, “She spoke with the prettiest mouth and she scorned me/She sharpened her teeth and flashed them to warn me.” And amid the vitriolic grunge of the title track, Rice insouciantly sings a litany of self-defeating prophecies, capping each verse with the refrain, “It’s all a waste of time.” Far from being worthless, Further North offers an intriguing set of distinctive songs. With his eccentricities and deadpan delivery, Johnathan Rice doesn’t come off as a conventional singer/songwriter, but that's not a bad thing and neither is this album.