Home / CD Review: Johnathan Rice – Trouble Is Real

CD Review: Johnathan Rice – Trouble Is Real

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First posted on Mark Is Cranky:

The thought processes solidified. No, that’s not it. They cured. No. Coagulated. Froze up. Became rigid. Inflexible. Somnambulant.


That’s what modern life can do to the creative side of the brain…and that’s what happened to me over the last few months. Too much work pressure. Too much money pressure. Too much maintaining-an-antique-house pressure (see previous entry). Too much what-am-I-gonna-be-when-I-grow-up pressure.

Too much.

So when the music played, usually a refuge from exterior noise…nothing. No physical response. No emotional response. Very worrisome. I must have ‘listened’ to Johnathan Rice’s Trouble Is Real at least three or four times. Nothing. Not good. Not bad. Not anything. It was like an aural version of neuritis, a lovely optic nerve inflammation that causes vision loss.

That first day of vacation just couldn’t come fast enough. I was more than a little worried that too much was riding on the time off. What if nothing changes? Have my ears gone on permanent holiday?

It was the lupines that did it. Normally, time spent on the Maine coast produces the required tonic. The mountains, tides and delicious breezes tend to work their combined magic, resulting in loosened nerve knots. But at this particular time of year there’s a special treat to be seen. Lupines. One of nature’s most beautiful flowers, they’re popping up in bunches as far as the eye can see: in little front yard patches, in giant color bursts in fields. Man has created some true wonders, but nothing to match what mother earth has put out there.

A day or so of drinking these images in and the ear chemicals upstairs finally began to flow again. I gave Trouble Is Real another try.

This is the kind of voice that doesn’t immediately register with me. Breathy and more than a little earnest, Rice brings a slightly less forlorn Nick Drake to mind. In fact, it was Drake’s sound floating in my mind as the pensive “Mid November” played. And like Drank, I initially wasn’t sure about the voice. Do I like it?….Hmmmm….not sure. But then the rollicking “Kiss Me Goodbye” tumbled out and, supported by some jaunty guitar arpeggios and musical atmospherics (mandolin and mellotron), Rice’s voice came to life.

Now that the door had swung open, I was ready for the simple and unadorned beauty of “Break So Easy”, the country field recordings of “Lady Memphis” (written with Jesse Harris) and “Put Me In Your Holy War” and the Dylanesque “Behind the Front Lines”.

Credit must be given to producer Mike (Bright Eyes) Mogis who, in addition to some fine knob-twiddling, plays a bunch of instruments. Talk about your “Mr. Sound Textures”: electric bass, electric guitars, piano, toy piano, wurlitzer, mellotron, air organ, keyboards, samples, loops, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, vibes and theremin. Mogis helps Rice turn in some fine combinations of sound, my favorite being “City On Fire”, which contrasts a stripped-down singer/songwriter vibe with the majesty of sorta-Bjork orchestration. For me, Mogis is edging into Jon Brion territory.

It’s funny how this musical resonance stuff works. Sure, “resonance” implies a natural response to something. Well, now when I revisit “Mid November” I have an entirely different reaction to it. Strange.

And maybe that’s OK. I’m just chalking it up to being too stressed out to notice the first time around. Heck, I think I might have even missed the lupines for the first couple of minutes or so.

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