Friday, November 10, 2023
The View On Pop Culture: Richard Johnston, The Reunion Show, French Kicks, Drowning Pool DVD (2003)
Richard Johnston is a unique performer. Onstage, Johnston straps on his well-worn guitar, sits down behind a foot-operated drum, takes off his shoes and socks and proceeds to wail, blowing away audiences with his stellar finger-picking. Nominated this year for a prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Best New Artist Debut,” Johnston champions the “Mississippi Hill Country” style of country blues. No newcomer to the music world, Johnston has been playing and learning his craft for almost 12 years, drawing influence from blues legends like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. With the release of Johnston’s self-produced debut, Foot Hill Stomp (FTRC), a powerful new talent has hit the national stage.
Foot Hill Stomp represents Johnston’s attempt to marry the hillbilly country sound of old Appalachia with Mississippi Hill Country tradition. Johnston succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, the best material on Foot Hill Stomp crackling with energy and enthusiasm while retaining the timeless country blues vibe. Using sparse instrumentation similar to his live performances – usually only a single guitar, foot drum and washboard – Johnston breathes new life into antique treasures like Rainey Burnette’s “Coal Black Mattie” or the Rev. Robert Wilkins’ “That’s No Way To Get Along.” Some friends from Mississippi help out on a few tracks, folks like Cedric Burnside, Robert “Nighthawk” Tooms and Jessie Mae Hemphill lending their talents to the young bluesman. An anachronism in the modern blues scene, Richard Johnston has delivered an encouraging debut in the decidedly low-tech Foot Hill Stomp.
Victory Records has a long and glorious history as an independent hardcore punk label. That said, there’s nothing to prepare a listener for the infectious pop hooks found on Kill Your Television (Victory) from the Reunion Show. Evidently the brains behind the brawn at Victory recognize quality when they hear it, and if punk purists dismiss the CD release as “selling out,” then so be it. Few indie labels can brag that they released something as fresh and exciting as Kill Your Television this year, and few young bands sound as mature and enthusiastic as the Reunion Show.
Vocalists Mark Thomas and Brian Diaz have a real chemistry, both leading songs or providing background harmonies. There’s also a punk undercurrent supporting tunes like “New Rock Revolution,” Derrick Sherman’s capable six-string work pushing the songs forward without ever overwhelming the melody. The Reunion Show reminds this scribe a lot of the Undertones, or perhaps the Scooters, glib young men with a talent for mixing ‘80s-styled new wave pop with classic guitar-driven rock & roll and managing to make it sound like something new. Along with Leisure McCorkle’s latest disc, Kill Your Television is the most invigorating collection of tunes to grace this critic’s stereo in a proverbial month o’ Sundays.
French Kicks, part of a thriving New York City music scene, are thrown in with garage rock fellow travelers like the Strokes or the White Stripes by lazy, looking-for-a-shortcut rock critics. The reality, much like the band’s recent debut album One Time Bells (Startime), is far more complex. Truth is, French Kicks doesn’t sound much like any of those guys, One Time Bells a multi-layered and textured collection of songs requiring more than a casual hearing to finally unravel. Starting with a post-punk musical framework, the band tacks on elements of British-influenced pop, discordant guitar riffs, subdued vocals and low-fi melodies. Singer Matt Stinchcomb’s fluid vocals are low-key, supported by sporadic harmonies while guitarist Josh Wise provides a steady drone beneath the lyrics.
Not anywhere near as riff-oriented as, say, the Strokes, French Kicks carefully craft each song on One Time Bells so that it slowly unfolds, the album growing more familiar and hypnotically enchanting with each play. It’s a good trick, One Time Bells sneaking up on you from behind, catching the unsuspecting listener with a scrap of guitar play, a memory of a lyric or a stretched-out rhythm. Another of 2002’s overlooked CD releases, One Time Bells provides a fine introduction to the talents of French Kicks, a band definitely worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The recently released Sinema (Wind-Up) does a fine job of outlining the band’s brief history. With over 2 ½ hours of content, the DVD includes all three of the band’s acclaimed music videos, powerful films with imaginative visuals and uncompromising metallic clamor. A collection of eight live “bootleg” videos, including a rave-up version of “Bodies” complete with raging mosh pit, showcases the band’s onstage talents. Behind the scenes video, band commentary and a handful of rare audio tracks round out Sinema. A solid documentary of the band, a portion of the proceeds from the DVD will go towards buying Williams’ parents a house, fulfilling the late rocker’s dream. (View From The Hill, January 2003)