Will Johnson, "Maestro of Melancholy," has done it again, writing and arranging an exquisite foray into wistfulness so sublime you can't help but feel elation mingled with the sadness. For those confused by Johnson's prolificacy (a dozen releases in nine years bear his stamp), South San Gabriel is where Will Johnson, "Centro-Matic Rock & Roll Band Leader," and Will Johnson, "Solo Artist of the Sparse," converge. SSG was born from the slow and stately side of Centro but exhibits a fuller sound than Johnson's skeletal solo work. The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation's Through rivals SSG's stunning debut, Welcome, Convalescence, and is built around a similar lonesome, high-plains sound and Johnson's poignant narratives. But this isn't stock-in-trade alt country; South San Gabriel's arrangements unfold in languorous beauty, each of Carlton Chronicles' nine songs varying widely in texture: programmed beats, synthesized accents, field recordings, grand pianos, shimmering organs, nylon-stringed guitars, violins, banjos, and angelic harmonizing all play roles nearly as key as the pedal steel so central to the record's feel.
Take "Predatory King Today," just about the most prescient song about a cat ever written: Johnson waits until the one-minute-and-forty-second mark - just as the second verse ends and the chorus seems inevitable - to drop in the pedal steel for the first time in this song, spotlighting it to make its lonesome whine much more than just background filler. On "I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite," a classical harp makes an unforgettable cameo, a single strum introducing the chorus, and then a lush, ten-second burst announcing the coda. The placement of that harp - as with most of the accents - is such that you not only notice it, you may never forget it. On the following song, "This Rookie Runs," one pronounced cymbal crash stands out, its placement pivotal to the fiddle and pedal steel contrapuntal dance that follows. "Affection's the Pay," a stately, six-minute dirge, segues seamlessly into "The Dark of Garage," with a tremendous grand piano chord marking the exact moment of transition. With that chord still resounding, a whole new set of instrumentals (piano, nylon-string, and electric guitars) unfurls, and the pace slyly changes to a brisk shuffle as the piano chord fades into the ether. Moments like these abound throughout Carlton Chronicles, songs segueing gently into each other, single accents adding indelible marks to songs.
Lyrically, Carlton Chronicles is the tale of a terminally ill pet cat, told primarily from the animal's point of view, and if there's ever been a recording that better captures the feline essence - curious intruder, stubborn individualist, kingly predator - buy it as a collector's item because only a cat could improve on this. Yet Carlton Chronicles' songs aren't species specific because Johnson's meditations on life, illness and mortality are as touching and universal as any put to music. Some may blanch at the overtly melancholy nature of Carlton Chronicles and SSG in general, but the entire panorama of bittersweet music, graceful arrangements, and thought-provoking narratives elevate Johnson's deceptively simple songs into the heady territory of transformative art. It's no surprise that both SSG titles suggest their own recuperative powers - this music is balm for the soul and life-blood for the tender-hearted.
1. Charred Resentment the Same
2. Predatory King Today
3. Affection's the Pay
4. The Dark of Garage
5. I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite
6. This Rookie Runs
7. I Feel Too Young to Die
8. Stupid Is As Stupid Does
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