Rain on the City
A man stops in the street. His eye catches something shining in the gutter. It’s just a penny, the lowliest of coin, but it sets the narrator off to ponder his current situation. In the simplest to-the-bone language, Freedy Johnston opens up an array of implied ideas, speaking to an inanimate object and finding the common ground between a bit of exchanged change making its way around the U S of A and the traveling troubadour heading from town to town.
Then again, perhaps Penny is just another lonely soul and not a coin of the realm at all.
“Penny lonely penny. You’re a wandering thing. And I am lost in the middle of town. Can’t you see. It was arranged we would meet here just now.”
Where has Freedy Johnston been wandering? Some folks lost track of him after his 1994 hit “Bad Reputation” and his last Elektra album, 2001’s Right Between the Promises. He has moved around, living in NYC, Austin, Kansas, Madison and Nashville. “It takes a while to re-adjust one’s priorities and get back on track after working with the big budget that the majors give you,” muses our hero. “I went through issues with the IRS, had a relationship go south and a touring vehicle grind to a halt but through it all I never gave up writing and gigging whenever possible.”
Rain on the City is his first album of new originals in eight years. Recorded in Nashville with producer Richard McLaurin, Freedy delivers one of the best song collections of his career, featuring a diverse array of radio friendly rockers, heartbreaking twang, even hints of blue-eyed soul and bossa nova.
Freedy Johnston was born in the small town of Kinsley, Kansas, famous for being the exact mid-point between the east and west coasts of the USA. He bought a mail order guitar as a teenager after hearing Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. Later while briefly attending college in Lawrence, Kansas, he fell in with the likes of the Embarrassment and the Mortal Micronotz. His own writing mixed literate post-punk with outlaw country and ’70s AM radio fare. His first album, The Trouble Tree on Bar None, was titled after the nickname his Mom gave a local Kinsley watering hole.
His second album, Can You Fly, was made while living in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the music community rallied ’round the singer. At the time the local scene based around the club Maxwell’s was particularly vibrant and Can You Fly featured a number of club regulars including Kevin Salem, Dave Schramm, Graham Maby, Chris Stamey and Syd Straw. With the release of the album Freedy was touted as one of America’s finest new songwriters by Rolling Stone, Spin and many others. In the Village Voice Robert Christgau hailed it as “a perfect album.” This past year Can You Fly was cited in the book 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die by music critic Tom Moon.
Signed to Elektra in 1994, Johnston had a radio hit with ”Bad Reputation,” and the Butch Vig-produced This Perfect World expanded his fan base. He would release four albums on Elektra, including Blue Days Black Nights, produced by T Bone Burnett.
In this decade his fans had to make do with an album of cover songs, live releases and the early vintage recordings of The Way I Were. But all along he was taking his time, working to get a batch of songs together that were undeniable.
In Nashville he worked his way around town trying various studios, making the covers album Favorite Waste of Time, working the co-song writing game and playing on bills at the Bluebird Café and other venues. He finally settled in at House of David, a studio run by multi-instrumentalist Richard McLaurin and owned by legendary Nashville session cat David Briggs, renowned as Elvis Presley’s last keyboard player. Briggs adds some Wurlitzer to the album on “The Other Side of Love.”
Producer McLaurin has done an excellent job of framing Freedy’s voice with sympathetic arrangements, like the title track “Rain on the City,” whose slashing strings and keyboard washes sound like so much precipitation in an Edward Hopper cityscape. There is radio friendly fare, such as the epic “Don’t Fall in Love With a Lonely Girl.” and the Buddy Holly-style rave-up “It’s Gonna Come Back to You.” There are also fine vocal performances accompanying the acoustic majesty of “Venus” and the country-rock twang of “Rio Grande,” where a full-throated Freedy confidently roars over some excellent overdriven guitar pickin’.
What about the future? There are rumors of a new set of songs including a potential title track called “Neon Repairman.” “While making this album in Nashville, co-writing started making sense to me,” says Freedy. “It’s not about trying to write a big hit, it’s about working on a tight deadline and getting something that is better than the sum of the parts and getting it done.” To that end he’s been writing in Nashville with Daniel Tashian from the Silver Seas in a side project called the Charmers. There’s Mike Brown from up in New York state with whom he’s been swapping files (“he comes up with amazing things I wouldn’t ever think of,” says Freedy), and down in Austin he’s got a couple of songs under his belt with Texas legend Jon Dee Graham. He’s also looking to do more film work like he did on the Farrelly Bros. movie Kingpin. And there are always songs to be learned in Madison, Wisconsin with Duke Erikson and Butch Vig of Garbage in their joint cover band the Know-It-All Boyfriends.
In the meantime it will be Freedy working his way, wandering the USA, promoting a little Rain on the City in a city near you.