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All Things Must Pass
By John Brodeur

John Davis
John Davis (Rambler)

Confession: I’m a power-pop dork. Anyone who knows me would tell you that, probably with a more than a hint of condescension. Time and circumstance haven’t changed anything; I’ve been this way as long as I can remember. One of the bands that really sealed the deal was the Knoxville, Tenn., group Superdrag. Frontman John Davis’ knack for stick-in-the-craw melodies and self-exploratory lyrics made these guys different from the rest of the pack. They even turned out a bona fide classic along the way (1999’s In the Valley of Dying Stars). Unfortunately, after a strong start, the band struggled to stay afloat in a musical climate that increasingly favored drop-tuned metal over Liverpudlian pop, while Davis himself battled alcohol abuse, and the band went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2003.

Confession: I’m a terrible Christian. I was raised Catholic, so I haven’t been to church in a great many years, and I generally bristle at all things Christian and Christianity-related. Needless to say, I was a bit apprehensive when I first heard that Davis had cleaned up his act and found God just as he was beginning work on his first solo record. Religion is often used as a means to recovery, and Davis certainly needed that, but would it affect the music? Some very good music has come out of the very contemplation of this God character—John Lennon shook his fist at the heavens for years, U2 took up the mantle in his absence—but most “Christian rock” is more message than music. Let’s face it: Rock & roll is the devil’s music, and a whole lot of Jesus often means a whole lot of sucking.

Confession: I had a hard time suspending disbelief. Once you get past the outer sleeve (gorgeous, by the way) and crack open the jewel case, the dedication stares you in the face: “Thanksgiving and praises to the Most High; the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come, the Almighty; the First and the Last; King of Kings, Lord of Lords; the Faithful Witness, and the First Begotten of the Dead; the Lion of Judah; the Lamb Who is worthy to be praised; Christ Jesus.” Good God, that’s a mouthful. But this ain’t your daddy’s Christian rock. From the first notes of the Brian Wilson-beholden “I Hear Your Voice,” it’s clear that, despite the lyrical (and printed) content, it’s Davis’ plan to let the music do the talking.

Confession: I love this record. I’m not about to start going door-to-door handing out pamphlets or anything, but damn if this isn’t a first-rate pop-rock record, regardless of its heavenly themes. Anyone looking for Davis to forge a new musical path should be sated by the weepy country of album closer “Don’t You Know How Much You’ve Been Loved?” while longtime fans will go nuts for the fuzzed-out bubblegum of “Salvation.” He hints at traditional Southern gospel (“Jesus Gonna Build Me a Home”), nicks Lennon’s “I Found Out” (“Have Mercy”), and imagines what My Bloody Valentine might sound like if produced by Phil Spector (“The Kind of Heart”). On “Nothing Gets Me Down,” he addresses his personal trials directly (“Every night I’m a meteorite on a one-way trip”) and quickly points to the Answer (“I know it’s just a question of faith”), but wraps the whole thing up in a doozy of a hook that makes the lyric easier to swallow for the less-than-pious among us.

Throughout the album, Davis sounds like a man freed from bondage. Toward the end of Superdrag’s run, he sounded weary and exasperated, his voice razed by years of booze and cigarettes and the spoils of a life on the road. Today, he sounds better than ever; for the first time in a while, he is really singing—and playing (he plays everything but the shakers here)—from the heart. After having the feeling sucked out, he found the one thing that could put it all back together, and music fans should consider themselves luckier for it.

John Lennon

Acoustic (Capitol)

Nearly a quarter-century after John Lennon’s murder by a deranged fan in New York City, his widow Yoko Ono has released a 16-track CD of Lennon playing his post-Beatles material in solo acoustic renditions. This disc, however, is a mixed blessing: Although it shows how marvelous Lennon sounded alone and unplugged, listeners will have to endure its considerable flaws.

Acoustic is a pastiche of live recordings from two benefit concerts in 1971 and rough demos of the classic studio versions from the same decade. Although it has most of the highlights from his solo period, the album is beset with problems. Foremost is that nine of its 16 songs have already been released on the 1998 Anthology box set, giving us only seven new tracks. This makes Acoustic a rather paltry offering. The sound quality of some of the demos is also quite poor, leading one to wonder if Ono had to scrape the bottom of the vault to assemble the album. Finally, the liner notes offer virtually no information about the recordings. Instead, we get a handful of photos of the former Beatle, three of his drawings, the lyrics and chords to the songs, and a chord chart for the “future guitarists” that Ono dedicates the CD to.

All this is forgivable, though, as Lennon was arguably rock’s greatest songwriter and certainly one of its finest singers. Despite its shortcomings, Acoustic still upholds this legacy. His voice is never off-key or strained on these presumably unedited cuts, and remains wonderfully expressive throughout, especially on “Imagine,” “Watching the Wheels,” and “Dear Yoko.” On “Cold Turkey,” the onetime junkie even dramatizes the agony of heroin withdrawal with feral moans and guttural noises.

The disc also shows that Lennon was a better acoustic guitarist than you might expect, given that he was not the Beatles’ lead axman. Although he doesn’t accompany himself with complex fingerpicking or speedy single-note runs, his playing is solid and tasteful, consisting largely of deftly accented strumming with well-placed melodic embellishments. There are departures, though: On “Love,” his vocals float effortlessly over a chord line skillfully played in bass note-chord style. Again, “Well, Well, Well” sports surprisingly tasty blues licks.

Even though Acoustic might leave you hungering for what a well-produced unplugged John Lennon album might have been like, it does succeed in capturing his genius from a new angle. And for that, you know you should be glad.

—Glenn Weiser

Grand Habit

Grand Habit (Inox)

The name Grand Habit finds an unusual combination of adjective and noun joining forces, but flowing with an easy familiarity. So, too, the music of this brother duo of John and Joshua Carter finds its own graceful flow across a range of musical moods that in lesser hands could have come off as disjointed or unfocused. In fact, part of their debut disc’s power comes from the manner in which it unfolds as a sustained work, though it is 11 separate songs. The contrasts play off one another, linking them in subtle but aesthetically powerful ways. The ethereal bearing of opener “December” gives way to the riff-happy guitars of “Chaekku,” which in turn passes the baton to the keyboard-dominated “Tell the World,” followed by the potent melancholy and folkish strumming of “Token Subway Sister.” That’s just the first third of the album, but it makes clear that Grand Habit have wide-ranging musical inclinations that they are able to marshal into one comfy little cottage with no bickering to be heard. Worth a visit indeed.

—David Greenberger

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