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Album review: Freedy Johnston's 'Rain on the City'

January 11, 2010 |  6:31 pm
Freedy_j-240__ Wasn't the singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston always pretty much middle-aged? Midwestern and spectacularly unflashy, apparently born with a receding hairline, the Kansas-born, Hoboken-launched singer-songwriter won critics' hearts and some fame in the early 1990s with intensely crafted songs about adulthood's curveballs: rebound romances, gambling losses, the drudgery of doing time for crimes of the heart.

When he hit a slump a decade ago, the grind of being a mid-level artist was partly to blame. But it also seemed that Johnston was bored with his subject matter, having grown up too soon.

"Rain on the City" is Johnston's first collection of new songs in eight years, and in that time he's hit midlife for real. The crisis, in all its mundanity, suits him. Forty-nine now, he's mastered the urge to startle that often made earlier songs (like the murderer's tale "This Perfect World" or the gambler's roundelay "The Lucky One") feel a bit like O. Henry stories -- surprise ending, folks! "Rain on the City's" songs tend to be plainer, offering insights that hit with a softer, more lingering impact.

Some of Johnston's setups still force listeners to puzzle over their deeper meanings -- "Venus Is Her Name" plays coy with its scenario of an ex encountered on an airplane, and "Lonely Penny" hints at the creepy side of chance encounters. But most have a directness that complements Johnston's singular gift for metaphors.

"I'm bound back home, my father died," he sings in the lovely "Central Station," solidifying the feeling just evoked by the image of a woman drying her eyes on a mended dress.

Over the years, Johnston's sound has softened, moving from reckless power pop into something smoother and less showy. "Rain on the City" was recorded in Nashville, where Johnston spent much of the last decade, and it has that professional Music City feel.

Producer and multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin and the noted studio players he enlists help Johnston make his source material explicit: "The Kind of Love We're In" is a samba that really feels Brazilian; "The Other Side of Love" neatly borrows from Brill Building pop and "It's Gonna Come Back to You" nods to Buddy Holly.

These unobtrusively eclectic arrangements lend variety to Johnston's determined focus on how big plans, whether built for one, two or a family, collapse under the weight of people's imperfections. The album closes with "What You Cannot See, You Cannot Fight," a typical Johnston monologue, in which a widower reminds his prodigal son of what they lost when they lost Mom -- a mirror, essentially, that kept them on track.

Johnston's best songs remind us that every mirror, like every voice, is always in danger of cracking. But that doesn't take anything away from the beauty of our illusions.

-- Ann Powers

Freedy Johnston
Rain on the City
Bar/None Records
Three and a half stars (Out of four)