Johnny Foreigner – Grace and the Bigger Picture [Album]


Originally published at Sonic Dice, November 2009.

If you haven’t seen hard-touring Birmingham three-piece Johnny Foreigner live yet, you may want to consider getting out more. As if they needed an excuse for another jaunt on the road, they team up with another credentialed-up producer Alex Newport to release Grace and the Bigger Picture. The acid test for this second album however is beyond the customary dizzy sugar rush, will you be inclined to dig it out for a spin this time next year?

Opener Choose Yr Side and Shut Up! acts as an appropriate metaphor for the duelling boy/girl vocals that never quite resolve themselves. With the line “And it starts like” Johnny Foreigner are off with a pop and a whizz; it starts like how it continues really, all slow bent notes, stop-start metrical foolings, widdling guitar fills et al. Security to the Promenade may be slightly more accomplished, but essentially follows the same template. Sometimes you’ll find the criticism that there are no hooks to a band’s music; if anything, JoFo are only guilty of incorporating too many hooks; Security to the Promenade for example ends up sounding like a random bunch of phrases which are intoned slightly louder or more tunefully than the backdrop. “Bath-room floor!”, “Holiday heaven!”, “Student union!” are pretty much the catcalls that define the track. Nothing much else sticks in the melee (or should that be puree?) of v-flicking guitar fills, crunching proliferations in volume and hyperspeed drumming that randomly hits brick walls. It collapses into a giant pothole only to emerge spitting a stream of water the other side for a final thrash. Great fun, but once it’s over, it’s over; a perfect indie moshpit soundtrack it might be, but it seems to evade the memory unnervingly.

The honest-to-God truth of the matter is that if you’ve heard one track on this album, then you’ve pretty much heard all of them. That being the case, it’s useless to really focus on the album track-by-track; it’s fun, but it’s repetitive and some might whisper just a little pointless. Fair enough there’s a giddy thrill to be had, and I doubt the band themselves would profess themselves to be any more than musical hedonists. Therefore, the only logical place to turn is those tracks that stand out, barging free of the stagefront scrum for a breather. Illchoosemysideandshutup, Alright begins sweet and quiet before a controlled apex of noise is reached; it’s all over a little too quickly however and is treated rather like an interlude than the proper track it probably deserved to be. More Heart, Less Tongue, beyond the ‘we’ve been to all these countries that you haven’t and didn’t like it’ sentiment, bravely tries to stick with its waltzy piano line. It’s an awful lot more restrained than most other tracks – a pair of tiny chaotic and dissonant breakdowns not withstanding – and is the most impressive thing on offer here, showing real signs of songwriting maturity. That said, the ‘sick of being homesick’-inspired “Oh! Seven! Fuck it! I’ll call tomorrow” line is infantile, bordering on genius. The Coast Was Always Clear most accurately recaptures the spirit of the still-to-be-bested-even-now Choose Yr Side and Shut Up, with Alexei Berrow quizzing “Who’s watching the coast? Who’s watching the coast? Who’s watching the coast and who’s watching you!?” ever more frantically. It unexpectedly spaces out into a resonatingly empty section of serenity before eventually working itself back into top gear to end frothing at the mouth once again.

Returning to the ‘different-sounding’ tracks, the promising moderation shown in More Tongue, Less Heart and The Coast Was Always Clear’s after-the-jump instrumental ending point to greater achievements in future from JoFo. It can be argued (and has been for the entire previous page) that they really need to get past this idea that everything must be played as quickly and hit as hard as possible. Johnny Foreigner are skilled in the art of self-reference, both with regard to Grace and indeed the bigger picture. Their little self-contained universe is hinted at in the inclusion of previous release titles (“So it started pretty, arcs across the city” goes Choose Yr Side), and recurring motifs… well, recur… throughout the album. The “some summers” refrain of Feels Like Summer crops up at The Coast Was Always Clear’s climax and question-retort relationships clearly exist between Choose Yr Side and Shut Up!/Illchoosemysideandshutup, Alright, More Heart, Less Tongue/More Tongue, Less Heart. A clear sense of the band’s identity and their little self-created microcosm is appealing. Then again, they’re difficult to like at times, often coming across as somewhere perilously close to obnoxious; the ‘woe-is-us-we-tour-hard’ songs can’t fail to grate, as astutely observed as they sometimes are.

Grace and the Bigger Picture is another one-dimensional joyride through the neon-graffitied council estate called Johnny Foreigner, a realm of blaring sirens and people shouting at you and beating you about the head with sticks. Therefore, there are complaints aplenty; it’s not very well rehearsed or produced, and more precision and polish wouldn’t have gone amiss. The quality doesn’t exactly lurch, but at least undulates noticeably at times; Kingston Called, They Want Their Lost Youth Back is ‘fuck-off-that’s-awful’ bad, for example. More time should’ve been spent on it as a project, more consideration given to the impressions the songs make upon the listener. It’s no coincidence that Criminals is the album’s first single, being its most memorable moment, with a chorus bordering on… gasp! Catchy! From the album title upwards, JoFo are focussing on the long term, but they really need to question what it is they’re providing their listeners with. It’s all very well to be the soundtrack to a drunken slam dance in a securityless venue, but quite another to be worthy of repeat listens at home. If one of those hoodies with panels from old comic books on it could make noise, they’d sound like Johnny Foreigner; all random explosions devoid of context and snippets of dialogue in disembodied speech bubbles. I guess they live and die on whether that description appeals to you or not.

6 out of 10.

Sonic Dice score: 4 out of 6

Choose Yr Side and Shut Up! on Spotify
A head-spinning introduction which the album never tops; arming you with no more than a pair of glowsticks, it sends you reeling into a neon-daubed indie disco never to be heard from again.

Best Before Records
Johnny Foreigner on Myspace
Johnny Foreigner on Last.fm

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