Gravity and Grace

Pine Music 2009

If you’re born with a run-of-the-mill name, one way to attract attention is to spell it differently; another is to become a singer/songwriter of note. Johnsmith has both bases covered. Gravity and Grace, his sixth album, is a sweet album chockfull of Midwestern goodness, non-preachy spirituality, simple-but-memorable melodic hooks, self-revelation, and non-mawkish sentimentality. The opening track, “Right Into Love” is an autobiographical tour that takes us through Johnsmith’s hippie days, drives us to the West Coast, kicks us about, and deposits us back in a Midwestern Mississippi River town where the journey began. It, and family-values (in the best sense of the term) songs such as “Father’s Day” and “Juni Rae,” suggest a man content to be on the path he’s chosen. Highlight tracks include his reconfigured cover of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” the faintly Irish “Safe Home,” and “Eliza Jane.” The last of these is a nice piece of writing. Johnsmith assumes the personae of a black woman from Tennessee making her way by bus to New Orleans through the old battlegrounds of the civil rights movement. For Eliza Jane her journey is “Holy Ground, Holy Ground/It’s one foot up and one foot down” as she observes life from the front of the bus, courtesy of Rosa Parks, yet still sees much work to be done. Johnsmith thinks of himself as a “blue collar” songwriter and he certainly has an eye for capturing everyday drama. Stellar guest help from Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Jonathan Bird, Jimmy LaFave, and others make this an embraceable release that cuts through cynicism.--lv



TODD HANNIGAN and the Heavy 29’s
Courtside for the Apocalypse, Volume 2

Rocker Todd Hannigan has played with Jackson Browne, Ben Harper, and Jack Johnson. For the past few years he’s fronted his own band, but maybe that’s not the best thing. As an instrumentalist the Ventura-based Hannigan first made his mark playing surf guitar. That talent is showcased on his new CD’s opening track. The instrumentals are the best thing about the CD; in fact, they’re almost a sampler of pop guitar—some acid rock, a bit of countrified rock, some post-punk grunginess, a dash of folk rock, even some quiet acoustic such as “Thicker than Water.” Hannigan is also a decent songwriter, if you can make out what he’s singing. His Website compares his voice to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Cat Stevens. As if. Let’s be honest about it; Hannigan’s voice is a level or two below flat-out ordinary. He lacks range, expressiveness, and force. What’s left is a soothing midrange, but rendered in a languid manner that washes over us rather than grabbing our attention. Maybe surf music and the sideman’s life fits Hannigan better.--LV



A few flops short of a bag of compost!

It’s a tough time to be a far-right loony. First the Soviet Union collapsed and then Fidel Castro retired to his deathbed. That pretty much removed communism from the old bag of scare tactics. Every day newspapers are folding like insomniac origami artists, so it’s hard to blame the “liberal media” for much of anything. Radical jihadists scare everyone so there’s no political traction there, and the beloved “private sector” turns out to be more riddled with pirates than the coast of Somalia. You can always blame homosexuals, but the sky hasn’t fallen in the states that have legalized gay and lesbian marriage. Religion? Church attendance is falling faster than clerical trousers, so that one’s starting to sour. So what’s a stark raving lunatic like Sarah Palin to do when she bails out as Alaska governor? Why blame the financial bailout, Hollywood, and television of course!

If any doubt remained that Sarah is a few cow flops short of a full bag of compost her bizarre press conference when leaving the Alaskan State House should dispel doubts. Palin didn’t have the grace or intelligence to leave the governorship quietly. In one breath she warned of vague forces “hell bent on tearing down our nation,” and in the next she admonished that “government largess … doesn’t come free.” Then she told everyone not to pick on the family of the incoming governor and followed it by blaming television for falsifying things about herself. Her actual words were, “How about, in honor of the American soldier, you quit making things up?” What the hell!!??? Will someone please explain to Palin what a nonsequitur is?

But let me dignify her comments with more consideration than they had or deserve. Creating faceless enemies is a classic McCarthyite tactic. Who are those “hellbent on tearing down the nation?” Not television or Hollywood; both depend on a healthy economy. Not those whose jobs have been saved by government bailout money. It would, however, be a pretty good description of the principals who engaged in the reckless patterns of deindustrialization, capital flight, and Wall Street speculation that made government largess necessary. And it might also apply to, say, a politician with twenty pending ethics violations. Or are those charges just a Hollywood script invented to denigrate the military? Let’s call this rant what it is—Palin’s attempt to scapegoat others for her own misdeeds and ineptitude.

Can there be any doubt that Sarah Palin isn’t fit to run a fried dough stand let alone the United States? Palin wants to blame television for her woes, but I say if you’re not tough enough to take on Tina Fey you should shut up and go away. In that order.--LV