Michael Johns is set to release his new album Hold Back My Heart on June 23rd. Johns was a contestant on American Idol in 2008. While he only finished the contest in eighth place, the show did give him some much needed national exposure.
Before the show, Johns had been struggling in the business for a while. After a few close brushes with a "big break," only to have his music remain unreleased, Johns auditioned for American Idol. His unexpected early departure is well known among fans of the show. It may have been one of the factors that led to the addition of the new judges "second chance” rule.
All of that is behind Johns now. In the past year he has made several television appearances. He wrote and recorded a soundtrack for Shaun White’s snowboarding documentary Don’t Look Down. I had the opportunity to speak with Johns last year when Hold Back My Heart was still in the early stages of development. At the time he emphasized that the music was the most important thing to him and that this release would have a “rock/soul vibe.” Now, a year later, the album is here.
Hold Back My Heart does have a rock/soul vibe with a definite emphasis on soul. On this album Johns is certainly in his element, delivering a tight soul and old school R&B album. I dare say there is not a bad track on it. If anyone was unsure while watching Idol of what musical style Johns considered himself, they need only listen to this album. The songs are well written and all emphasize the strengths of his voice. The album’s first single “Heart On My Sleeve” was released in April and has been doing well on the adult contemporary charts.
Die-hard Johns fans will recognize five of the tracks from a demo album he recorded prior to appearing on Idol. The album was never officially released but briefly could be found online. The five songs reserved for this release were definitely the best of the bunch, and it’s good to see they found a place on this album.
Especially good is “Fool’s Gold.” The song is a blues ballad that has a Rolling Stones (a la “I Got The Blues”) meets the Allman Brothers kind of feel. “Feeling Alright” is a fun upbeat track that is probably the closest thing to rock on the entire album. The song is reminiscent of INXS both musically and vocally. And of course I mean that in a good way. At their best INXS melded R&B, rock and pop into a contemporary throwback that was fun to listen to. This song achieves that sound.
“Fire” is a funk song with a definite 70’s sound. In fact, I was almost positive the song was a cover of an old song, but it was actually written by Dave Cobb and Brent Roam. Cobb co-wrote six of the twelve songs on the album with Johns, as well as two other songs with Roam.
Among the other highlights, a personal favorite of mine is “Turn To You,” the song that closes the album. The song is very heartfelt and touching in its lyrics. It's about having that one person who is always there for you, and is beautifully sung by Johns.
“It’s Too Late” and “This Is Goodbye” are two sad blues ballads that Johns puts his all into vocally. “Heart On My Sleeve” is a Paul McCartney-esque piano based ballad that has a very nice and pleasant sound. The biggest surprise is Johns’ cover of the Bee Gees hit “Love Somebody.” The song is arranged quite differently and I didn’t recognize it until the chorus. Johns’ arrangement leans more toward an Otis Redding soul style than disco. The sound works quite well for the song.
“Hold Back My Heart” and “Heart Is Weak” (written by Diane Warren) are solid tracks, though I don’t find them as distinctive as some of the other tracks on the album. Both songs make good album tracks and Johns’ singing is particularly effective on “Heart Is Weak.” The title track has a cool little groove that is fun to listen to.
Hold Back My Heart is a must for anyone who is a fan of Johns, or simply liked him on Idol. Hopefully the high quality of the songwriting, musicianship and vocals will help the album catch on with fans of soul, r&b and bluesy pop.