Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Johnathan Rice, Good Graces + Concert at Mercury Lounge + Meeting Conor Oberst

Good Graces is Johnathan Rice's first solo album since 2007's Further North.  In between, he collaborated with longtime girlfriend Jenny Lewis as Jenny and Johnny for the 2010 album I'm Having Fun Now (my quick review of that album is here).  Good Graces is a lot more reminiscent of that album than of Johnathan's other two solo albums:  it has that sun drenched California sound, and Jenny Lewis sings harmony on most of the tracks.  He also employs Z Berg and the Watson Twins; in an interview with Earbuddy, he says, "I'm addicted to singing with beautiful women, and I have no desire to get help."  The album has nine tracks and clocks in at about thirty minutes.  "I love short songs and short records," he notes.

Good Graces is also a departure from Johnathan's previous solo work in that many of the lyrics have to do with being in love.  In fact, the first two songs, "Acapulco Gold" and "My Heart Belongs to You" are love songs.  In an interview with LA Music Blog, Johnathan says, "'My Heart Belongs to You,' for me, is a milestone in my songwriting because of the honesty in it.  There are no barbs in it or trap doors you can fall down into.  It's a very honest love song, which didn't come naturally to me."

The title track brings Jenny to the fore more than elsewhere on the album; that is, it feels more like a duet on the chorus rather than simply backing vocals.  "I'm forgiven! I'm forgiven!  And it feels so good!" they sing on a song about reconciling.  And then he adds:  "I might do wrong just to feel it again."

This is definitely a likeable album.  "Lou Rider," for example, is a catchy song; Johnathan says that it "has that title because the vocal is kinda Lou Reed and the groove is kinda Low Rider."  Still, I have a few issues with the album.  If you prefer your albums on the longer side (like I do) you will find it lacking in that regard.  Secondly, it seems like it's in between a Johnathan Rice album and a Jenny and Johnny album, as Jenny's vocals are nearly always present.  Then there's the fact that it's heavy on the loved-up lyrics--I would have liked a bit more variety.

I had not seen a solo show from Johnathan before.  I had seen him as part of Jenny Lewis's band during her Acid Tongue tour and then again during their tour as Jenny and Johnny (both times in New Haven, CT).  This time I headed to NYC's Mercury Lounge to catch him in concert  (plugged set) this past Monday.  He did a lot of new songs, of course, along with three apiece from I'm Having Fun Now and  Further North.  He didn't do any songs from his debut album Trouble is Real.  He opened the set with "Good Graces."

I figured certain songs would be off limits since they had vocals from Jenny Lewis that would be missed if they weren't included.  However, Johnathan didn't shy away from such songs and Jenny's vocals were often piped in--which underscored how much of a presence she was on the album and made it seem like she ought to be there in the flesh.  The backing track was an appropriate volume, though--not very loud.  Johnathan's vocals and musicianship are just as good live as they are recorded.

And for something cool and unexpected:  I met Conor Oberst!  I knew he and Johnathan Rice and members of his touring band were tight, but Conor happened to be in the crowd for this show.  Mercury Lounge has a capacity of 250 (fewer than that were in attendance), and I recognized him right away.  The small, low-key space made it seem like not a big deal to talk to him briefly.  I mostly just wanted to convey how much I liked his music.  I asked if he was working on a solo album and he said yes and I think he said something about putting it out at the end of the year.

In my short interaction with him, I appreciated how present he seemed.  His striking light-brown eyes had a calm and expressive look and he listened thoughtfully while I spoke.  To close the brief conversation, I said, "Keep doing what you're doing, love the music," and he replied, "Thanks darling."

Good Graces rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Johnathan Rice at Mercury Lounge, NYC, 9-23-13

1 comment:

  1. Great review, Elizabeth! And very cool how you got to meet Conor Oberst! :) I know you love his music!