The Skygreen Leopards Gorgeous Johnny

[Jagjaguwar; 2009]

Styles: folk, pop, folk-pop
Others: The Byrds, Giant Skyflower Band, Papercuts

Gorgeous Johnny is The Skygreen Leopard’s first release since 2006, but this in no way implies that the band has been lazily gazing into labyrinth windows for the past few years, put music aside to temporarily join an Egyptian circus, or been lost in the shadow arms of lust. Unless, of course -- and this is probably closer to the truth -- they did all those things while simultaneously producing a large body of interesting music. Donovan Quinn and The Thirteenth Month released one of the better — and disturbingly overlooked — albums of 2008; Glenn Donaldson has created albums with The Blithe Sons, Giant Skyflower Band, and, like any good member of the Jewelled Antler Collective, many others. On Gorgeous Johnny, Quinn and Donaldson are joined by Jason Quever from Papercuts, who has worked with them on several past projects. Quever’s organ work from the latest Papercuts album, You Can Have What You Want, carries over nicely on Gorgeous Johnny, providing a more haunting, powerful dimension to the sleepy-pop sound the band has triumphantly cultivated over the years.

With Gorgeous Johnny, the band is exploring the possibilities of self-historicization, or self-mythization, by telling the story of Johnny, an ex-Leopard. The story follows Johnny’s journeys through love, loss, sunshine train rides, new and old towns and faces, autumn drunkenness, and beat, road-wandering, oftentimes candlelit glory. This reminds me of a part in a Paul Auster book — and you’ll have to pardon me for not being able to name the specific text because my book collection sits packed and taped up in boxes waiting to be moved, once more, back up the East Coast with the rest of my belongings — that I’ve always enjoyed. An author starts a project for which he hires himself out to common folk like you and I to write a book that provides a historical account of an otherwise overlooked life. The mission is to document a life that isn’t worth documenting according to the dominant criteria of documentation. If left to the pen and voice of the hegemon, the story of someone like Johnny would never be told. But, like Auster, The Skygreen Leopards are throwing a wrench in this outmoded conception of history by telling a story that is worth telling according to an alternative, perhaps more romantic and sentimental, set of criteria.

It is unlikely that this new album will win the band more devotees, but this is largely unimportant. In fact, this might not even be true if one considers the growing popularity of acoustic-centric/folk/songwriter tunes these days -- yet, sadly, one must concurrently consider the ephemeral tastes of the many. Ultimately, the band is far from concerned with modifying their sound to please the demands of the hegemon, and much more concerned with telling a story on their own terms. Those familiar with the dreamy, West Coast, mushroom-shaded folk-pop that has become the band’s natural home will be pleased that the ingredients on Gorgeous Johnny have remained mostly undisturbed. The guitars are jangly and questionably tuned; the drums are doused in whiskey but always manage to keep the train moving; and the vocals are passionately out-of-key but always a perfect companion to the aesthetic and historical world they float within.

There are, however, differences worth noting on the new album. For instance, there is no free-flute playfulness like that found on Child God in the Garden of Idols’ “Christ Child Dances.” There is no fuzzed-glee like there is on “Play for Spring” from Jehovah Surrender. There’s also a bit less folk-psych-haze on Gorgeous Johnny than on Life and Love in Sparrow’s Meadow. Of all The Skygreen Leopards’ albums, Johnny sounds like Disciples of California more than anything else, with its emphasis on country sounds and storytelling rather than on idiosyncratic psych-flourishes. Some of these changes might be partly due to Quever’s production work. The album feels as if it was recorded indoors more so than others; though, Gorgeous Johnny still manages to reach out to the beaches, characters, woods, and moving trains it asks its listener to imagine. These minor shifts aside, the pop is still as breezy and enjoyable as ever, particularly on tracks like “Can Go Back” — which seems like a response to Papercuts’ Can’t Go Back — and “If Our Love Fails.” Both capture the timeless sound The Skygreen Leopards have claimed their own, and the album as a whole proves that there will always be at least a few who will tell the stories that live alongside it.

1. Johnny’s Theme
2. Margery
3. Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass
4. SGL’s, et al
5. Can Go Back
6. Goodnight Anna
7. Jehovah Will Never Come
8. Gorgeous Johnny
9. Inland Towns
10. Nine Car Train for Fremont
11. Robber’s Lace
12. If Our Love Fairs
13. Paid by the Hour

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