Just over a month ago I saw John Fullbright live for the first time and described it thus, “…from the opening lines of Daydreamer he fills the venue and what follows in the next hour and a half is nothing short of a revelation.” With his two albums, and especially Songs, on a steady drip-feed since then, I stand four-square behind that statement. John is exceptional. Not only a very fine musician and singer, playing guitar and piano with rare skill and proving equally adept with a harmonica, his voice has real range and filled the venue with ease. But what impressed most was the quality of his songwriting and his set was a procession of classic material that just got better and better. With the new album simply and starkly titled Songs, you know John means business, and he sure as hell delivers.
John hails form Oaklahoma and has described the state as a place were people do things for themselves. The DIY ethos is married to a real pride and the pervading philosophy of if you’re going to do something you do it well. If you build a house or a barn, as many people do, it should be standing long after you are gone. To a large degree it explains John’s musicality, as he started piano playing at young age and took to the guitar later on, just playing for himself and learning his way around the instruments. It was a long incubation, inspired by records along the way before John emerged into the wider musical world, pretty much fully formed.
His local area is also the home of Red Dirt Music, the branch of Americana that you’ve probably never heard of. In some ways it’s a construct of the media and the name refers to the local soil, which has s red hue. Musically the definition is somewhat slippery, a bit like ‘indie’ is to ‘rock’, but John made his start at The Blue Door and local Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, placing his early career steps right in the heart of Red Dirt territory. The sound has been described as, “Country music with attitude,” and more about a state of mind than an actual sound. Whatever category it fits into, however, Songs is a strong contender to join a hallowed list of true greats.
His debut, From The Ground Up, certainly grabbed considerable attention and acclaim, setting John on a pretty exhausting schedule of US and international touring. The cover of that record sees him standing on the porch of the family home where all of the songs contained within were written. That album was co-produced by Wes Sharon another Red Dirt connection, who is also involved with Songs. The debut found John filling out the arrangements with a number of session men, giving the album an electric sound, although more akin to say The Band than anything harder edged. Critical acclaim led in turn to a Grammy nomination, with a performance at the pre-show telecast adding to the momentum catapulting his career into orbit.
Not all of the debut was amped and Songs is comparatively stripped back, rather like its title, and more in keeping with I Only Pray At Night, Me Wanting You and Forgotten Flowers from that first release. Even where there is a full band and drummer involved the sound of the new record is comparatively stripped back and the focus very much on John’s words and his delivery. Lyrically too it’s a different affair with nothing quite as bible-belt-taunting as Gawd Above, fire-and-brimstone-scorched as Satan And St. Paul, or damning of our masters as Fatman.
Mostly this collection concerns itself with affairs of the heart, taken from different perspectives and angles. Perceptive and intuitive lines are spiked with innumerable hooks and given sympathetic melodic support by a great set of tunes. His voice is strong and impressive through a decent range, but with just a fraying at the edges and a touch of weary resignation in the face of a fair degree of emotional turbulence. Listening to Songs, you might think John particularly unlucky in love, although it would be foolhardy indeed to presume that this is all current autobiography.
Closer inspection reveals an album that is not without its playfulness. There are songs about songs, fond reminiscences and a certain contrary streak that suggests heartache isn’t always the winner. The cover picture is a photo of John, wine glass in hand, sitting on some steps, with a sideways glance and an expression almost as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa, half way between a smile and quandary. It fits the bill to a tee.
Seeing him live, John claimed to have nothing against happy songs, but just to be pro sad songs and the opener Happy rides with that line of thinking. Starting with a count in and then just John’s voice and single acoustic guitar chords, he sings, “Every time I try to write a song, it always seems to start where we left off.” But that defiance is there too as he delivers the pay off, “Won’t you tell me what’s so bad about happy.” Sparingly layered guitars and drums, all played by John, with David Leach adding bass, lift the song towards a whistling break in the middle.
That aforementioned turbulence also ferments the billowing ballad When You’re Here, led out by John’s piano and this time featuring a full band. It seems love is in sight, but maybe just out of reach and lines like, “As for lonely I can show you, how to live a life alone, all it takes is getting used to getting lost,” strike deep. Still the hope remains as he adds, “Don’t I feel like something when you’re here.”
If that’s one of initial stand out songs that puts John firmly amongst an elite group of singer songwriters, there are plenty of others that vie for equal attention with successive plays. The biggest is the skilfully arranged Never Cry Again, on which John once again stretches his voice over lines like, “Take my hand so we don’t get lost, I spent the coin I used to toss, and never knew what luck would cost, ‘til I bet it in the end,” over delightful, arpeggiated guitar lines. The longest is the story song, High Road, that perhaps echoes Woody Guthrie in its heartrending, working class tragedy. The emotions are heightened by the melodic diversion at the end.
Even when the arrangements are held back, the songs sound big and full and She Knows is just as impressive with just John and his piano and a simple bass line. There’s the soulful All That You Know, with a classic Wurlitzer piano as the only instrument. Until You Were Gone has that classic, finger picked guitar and devastating lines like, “I didn’t know about silence until you were gone.” The flipside of that is found in Very First Time, with two lovers battening down the hatches and, “…feeling good for the very first time.”
Keeping Hope Alive, which runs a merry ring around its title, Write A Song, which dissects itself, and Going Home are all cut from different cloth, but still fit the overall design perfectly and with a little twinkle. All of which just leaves, The One That Lives Too Far, which sounds like classic Jackson Browne and seals the deal with the frisson of lines like, “Truth be told the odds are stacked against us, truth be told they often always are.”
Truth be told, this album is a game changer. The pantheon has a new statue in place and there are two albums that join the most holy of texts. But as good as his debut is, Songs is the most finely nuanced and crafted distillation of its title and one of the truly great albums of our time. John is back on these shores imminently – do not miss out!
Review by: Simon Holland
18 – Gateshead, SummerTyne Americana Festival
19 – Manchester, The Ruby Lounge
20 – Sheffield, The Greystones
21 – Brighton, The Green Door Store
22 – Leicester, The Musician
24 – Guildford, St. Mary’s Church
25 – Winchester, The Railway
26 – Huntingdon, Secret Garden Party
27 – Perth, Southern Fried Festival (Supporting Rosanne Cash at the Perth Concert Hall).
Songs is release 21 July 2014
Order via Amazon
Photo Credits: Kate Burn / Vicki Farmer