By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Or, perhaps, if you're looking for a few hints as to direction/sound, pick up a copy of The Deathray Davies' The Return of the Drunk Ventriloquist. Then listen to Satellite Rides' leadoff single, "The King of All the World," again. Yeah, you thought that sounded familiar? Join the club, line forms to the rear. Clearly, if DRD singer-songwriter John Dufilho weren't such a nice guy, a lawyer would already be on retainer, motions would have already been filed. Or maybe Miller's just so much of a fan of the Deathrays--the 97's brought the band on tour with them last year, and Miller turned up on Late Night with Conan O'Brien sporting a Deathray Davies T-shirt--that he couldn't help but be influenced. Either way, maybe Dufilho and company deserve to be recognized as this year's Best Act Overall instead.
That said, Satellite Rides finds the 97's in top form, though their last-minute inclusion of the Rhett-and-a-guitar "Question," possibly the most beautiful song they've set to tape, only hurts the album. Why? Because it shows what the over-30 Miller can do when he's being himself, instead of trying to sound 18, or maybe "19." (Haha.) You almost wish Miller would go it alone, if only so you could hear more songs like "Question," so he couldn't hide behind power chords and a booming backbeat. So he could be Rhett Miller, for once, forever. And that's when we'll cut the cord. --Z.C.
Will Johnson (Centro-matic)
Winner for: Best Male Vocalist, Songwriter
There are those who want to write songs, and there are those who need to write songs, and you don't need an A&R man or music critic to help you discern the former from the latter. The songwriter by desire is, far too often, the untrustworthy bet: They're the ones with nothing to say, and they'll tell you so as loudly as they can from any stage, every night. Put your money on the songwriter by necessity, because he or she's the poor soul doomed to giving till it hurts, then pushing past the ache until they can no longer tell what feels good from what feels awful; it all provides the same buzz. They're the suckers who'd record for nothing and no one, happy only to get the sounds and words out of their heads and hearts and onto tape; they're the ones sitting in their bedrooms, plugged into four-tracks, clearing their throats and heads until they run out of words, notes, breath. They're the ones you'd follow to the ends of the earth, hand in hand, because you just trust them that much.
Will Johnson, certainly, is such a songwriter, but not merely because he and Centro-matic (Scott Danbom on piano and violin, etc; Mark Hedman on bass and guitar; and producer Matt Pence on drums) have released four albums in the past two years (not to mention myriad singles and split-EPs and other side projects); don't applaud the guy just because his art comes in mass quantities (after all, so do cigarettes and reality-TV shows and other things bad for you). Celebrate him for quality and not quantity, no matter how tempting the reflex to sit in amazement at his prolificness. Celebrate him instead for crafting pop songs so delicate they brush past you like a shadow; celebrate him instead for having resilience enough to open his chest, time after time after time, and give you his heart without asking for anything in return. That's the songwriter you want to bet on every time: He delivers without ever collecting.
It's hard now to recall there was ever a time when Johnson was, like, just a drummer--that spasm behind Funland's drum kit, that whirlwind of arms and legs and hair and sweat relegated to keeping the beat and, gasp, singing backup. But it's not so difficult even now to remember that rush--that bona fide thrill--that came when Johnson handed over his first collection of songs, recorded all by his lonesome in his bedroom and meant to be heard only by his friends; a tape of those early songs, those black-and-white sketches so brilliant they could hang on any museum's wall, remains among my most prized possessions. His voice--so vulnerable, breaking and aching, like that of a boy becoming a man--leapt out of the homemade, low-fi static and burrowed beneath the skin like shrapnel. Maybe that's because Johnson was a time bomb who'd finally gone off.
And he still can't contain himself: Last year's soft-as-a-brick-hard-as-a-feather All The Falsest Hearts Can Try(released on Quality Park Records) and San Gabriel Songs/Music(on Idol) are but two more literate, intimate additions to the canon that grows, seemingly, every other month. You listen to Centro-matic albums and wonder, in the end, how exhausting it must be to be Will Johnson, every single day. San Gabrielis especially demanding, full as it is of songs (short stories, really, with every other word deleted) about men and women on shaky last legs (or painkillers, perhaps)--the "prostitutes and gambling men" who've lost their innocence and, likely, all hope. When you listen to Centro-matic albums, you can never tell whether to smile or cry, so you do both. Just imagine what Johnson does. --Robert Wilonsky