It seems that three is a lucky number for the gifted singer/songwriter Freedy Johnston. His new record of originals, Rain on the City, his first in eight years, is his third attempt at finishing the release. The result is Johnston's finest recording since the overlooked masterpiece co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Roger Moutenot, Blue Days Black Nights.
Since the release of his 1992 album, Can You Fly, Johnston has gained high critical praise for his songwriting. He is a master storyteller using an array of pop genres, ranging from traditional folk to country to 1960s/1970s pop and rock to color dark or lonesome stories, often personifying various heartbroken, aimless and lonely characters, whose blemishes, flaws or, in some cases, psychotic behavior is completely exposed. From the Brill Building/Phil Spector touches of "The Other Side of Love" to the Bacharach-esque arrangement of "The Devil Raises His Own," Johnston displays his influences with deftness.
Recorded in Nashville at House of David, veteran session keyboardist David Brigg's studio, and produced by studio manager Richard McLaurin, Rain on the City's sound and tone immediately hits you. McLaurin, who is also a talented multi-instrumentalist, leads a group of Nashville musicians accentuating Johnston's songs and voice. However, unlike the melancholic mood set by T-Bone Burnett in Blue Days Black Nights, the tone on Rain on the City is bright and clear, with Johnston's vocals up front. And, at times, it's deceptive, producing an ironic effect, similar to Elvis Costello and The Attractions' deceptively upbeat 1980 release Get Happy!!
The characters in Johnston's songs have grown older, faced death and dealt with their loneliness and isolation. Under the bright strum of a ukulele, reminiscent of Paul McCartney's "Ram On," the narrator picks up a discarded or lost coin in "Penny Lonely." It transforms into a chance encounter with another lonely soul. "Hey, Penny, aren't we the same? Are we both just waiting to be taken away?" Transitory and brief encounters often occur in Johnston's stories.
The stunning title track is a cinematic view of people on a city street in a rainstorm. Accompanied by strings and Johnston's stirring vocals, the "visuals" are provided by his monologue and unwavering descriptions. "Central Station" and the final track, "What You Can't See You Can't Fight," are majestic songs musically, with engaging and similar themes: Both narrators are dealing with the death of a parent, with one character going "home" to face it, while the other is in constant, restless flight.
Rain on the City, Freedy Johnston's 12th release, is an excellent achievement with brilliant songwriting, execution and production. Though early in the year, this record may be a frontrunner for one of 2010's best. Indeed, three may be a magic number for the Kansas-raised songwriter, long overdue for deserved attention. For the listener, the wait was well worth it.