June 15, 2008

Review: Johnny Foreigner | Waited Up 'Til It Was Light [MP3]

They are no longer merely one of Britain's most tireless (and gin-swilling) touring rock concerns: Johnny Foreigner just released what is to date the record of the year. The Birmingham-based trio's massive debut long-player is thronged with careening guitar anthems, its 13 tracks shot through with typewriter ribbon-lengths of lyrics that collectively present a contemporary mythology of the band's beloved city. And they're all whip-smart: opener "Lea Room" -- named for the trio's van driver -- leads with the line "OK, flattery will get you everywhere, we're bored" and slyly warns "get out before the ship goes down." The listed closer "Absolute Balance" evidences singer Alexei Berrow's admiration of Craig Finn and The Hold Steady, as the track transmogrifies the Brooklyn act's "Killer Parties" into a summation of the experiences caged within Waited Up Til It Was Light. There is plenty of clever: the brilliant hidden song at the end of the album is titled "The Hidden Song At The End Of The Album" (the pop gem was issued previously as part of the demos collection I Like You Mostly Late At Never with the title "This End. Is A Beginning.").

The truth is we steeled ourselves to the possibility that Waited Up Til It Was Light would not live up to the expectations set by Johnny Foreigner's superlative 2007 EP Arcs Across The City. This was for a few reasons. We met the band in New York just as they wrapped the sessions for the full-length, and they were all sick. The band also made what seemed like an unusual choice for producer: while most of our favorite American indie acts worked with Agnello, Albini, Robbins or Weston, Johnny Foreigner threw its lot in with The Machine, a producer whose prior credits included Clutch and Armor For Sleep. Our concern was that he might go too far scrubbing up the trio's sound. And then the initial critical reception for the record in the UK was solid, but not ecstatic.

Happily, our fears were unfounded: Waited Up Til It Was Light is not slack, sanitized or suppressed. Instead the tracks burst with lacerating guitar, blissful feedback, tight vocal interplay and harmonies, and a fair amount of shouting. Overt production trickery is limited to some segues between tracks and some squishing and looping of guitars. Gang choruses (not our favorite) are deployed here and there, but given the band's camaraderie with Cardiff, Wales indie pop concern Los Campesinos! -- leading proponents of the gang chorus today -- we are not surprised to hear some influence manifested (the latter act was actually slated to come and provide backup vocals for "The Hidden Track..." but were apparently waylaid by a late plane). The denouement of "Absolute Balance" recycles the smacking, canned drum beat from "Salt, Peppa and Spinderella" (and the bridge of "The End And Everything After") before closing out with a rant from Berrow buried among vapor trails of guitar that loop off into the periphery of the left channel while a simple, poignant piano figure closes out the primary proceedings.

Songs start, stop, stutter and slam. Lyrics continue to memorably concern themselves with themselves, as well as pointy-shoed scenesterettes, retail wage slaves, and the rest of the frothing mass of the night-clubbing class. Berrow's words regularly penetrate the fourth wall and double back, dragging within their orbits failed romances, scene seances and social criticism. In the stellar "Cranes And Cranes And Cranes And Cranes" Berrow bemoans the impact of imperial barmen ("your boyfriend owns the bar we drink, your boyfriend owns everything") and urban gentrification ("why'd you want to live there if there's nothing but housing?") on Birmingham.

After signing to Best Before the trio's Arcs Across The City EP [review here] and "Our Bipolar Friends" single made it into the U.S. market laterally via EMusic, but the faucet seems to have been shut off, so you'll need to order Waited Up Til It Was Light from the U.K. or Japan. While you wait for that to arrive, read Alexei's song-by-song explication of the record at Drowned In Sound here. The set was issued June 2. The third single from Waited Up Til It Was Light will be for "Salt, Peppa and Spinderella," a song that surely will launch the phrase "turn on the real drums" among the hipster class when it is released Sept. 1 with the requisite remixes (we'd be shocked if one such remix didn't come from within the Los Campesinos! camp). Johnny Foreigner films the video for the track in London next week before launching headlong into the summer's endless strand of festivals. You can review all of the band's live engagements at its MySpace domicile right here.

Johnny Foreigner -- "Cranes And Cranes And Cranes And Cranes" -- Waited Up Til It Was Light
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[buy Waited Up Til It Was Light at RecordStore.co.uk right here]
[buy Arcs Across The City and "Our Bipolar Friends" from EMusic here]

Johnny Foreigner: Internets | MySpace | YouTube | Flickr

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