Son of John is the moniker of Worcestershire based singer-songwriter Jacob Johnson. 'Autumn's Hymn' is his debut album and the promotional material that accompanies this CD tells us he is 24 year old with a love of Folk music from both sides of the Atlantic. Jacob has taught himself guitar and banjo since the age of 18, with an emphasis on finger style playing and alternate tunings.
His song writing emerges from an eclectic taste in music, stylistic influences from guitarists such as Martin Simpson and John Martyn and the inspiration of musicians like Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and The Tallest Man On Earth.
His album 'Autumn's Hymn' is the culmination of 18 months in and out of the studio and although originally intended as a solo, vocal & guitar piece, other musicians have been drafted in along the way. Although something of a 'cast of millions', their contributions are sublime and add a subtle depth to the sound, so they all deserve a mention. We have Rupert French, electric guitar, Lindsay Farrell, violin, jaw harp, bodhran and percussion, Andrew Halford, percussion, Hetty Randle, vocals and percussion, Lucy Randle, concertina, melodeon and percussion, Mari Randle, vocals and percussion, Phil Richards, harmonica and lastly, William Keen Tomlinson, electric bass.
The album was recorded and mixed by Andrew Halford at Iglu Studios in Bewdley and produced together by Andrew and Jacob.
Of the ten tracks here, eight are Jacob originals and the other two are the traditional British Folk songs, 'Spencer The Rover' and 'Seven Gypsies'.
As a recording, the quality of this album is superb. Encompassed in a rich, warm glow it captures beautifully the textures and contrasts within the instrumentation and allows Jacob's voice and guitar to sit on top of the mix, but never overwhelm the proceedings.
The first three songs are a perfect showcase for Jacob and capture all that he has to offer, which is a considerable amount.
Track one 'Baseborn' is all sweet picking, lovely runs and a wonderfully understated vocal from Jacob. He has an excellent voice that sits somewhere between the husky drawl of Kelly Joe Phelps, the intensity of Martin Stephenson and the earthy, bluesy power of Marcus Foster. It is great for this sort of 'folk without borders' sound but in another life he could be just at home in Eddie Vedder mode fronting a rock band!
'American Progress' is a more bluesy, punchy number, all thumping bass line and sweet fills with some lovely harmonica pushing things along.
The third song 'The Maid & The King' is simply masterful and in my view a genuinely great piece of song writing by anyone's standards. A courtly, majestic guitar part, lovely vocal, witty lyrics and all wrapped up in the sweetest melody.
I really do think these opening three songs are simply music of the highest order.
It is worth also talking more about Jacobs's guitar and banjo playing, which are outstanding. His stated influences, Martin Simpson and John Martyn, are evident in both his effortless picking and heavy bass runs. However, his use of altered tunings is also a pivotal part of his overall sound. Very helpfully, Jacob states the tunings under each song in the inlay sleeve and as well as being a great source for guitarist interested in experimenting outside of standard tuning, it also helps explain how some of these lovely melodies are arrived at. For most songs the bass strings are tuned down one or two tones whilst, relatively speaking, the trebles tend to be tuned down one tone or less. This allows a marvellous drone, a deep bass thud and the higher melody notes picked out on the treble strings really accentuates the 'two guitars playing at once' sound. Of course, this would still not amount to much without Jacobs's obvious ability!
The remainder of the album is of a very good standard and I would just like to say a little more about my personal favourite track. 'Let Me Rest' is, the sleeve notes tell us, a rewrite of the traditional English ballad 'Death & The Lady'. It is a languid, archetypal song, essentially blues but the altered tuning, as with Martin Simpson, brings a much wider palette to bear than standard blues. Here there genuinely are threads of traditional folk, American blues, gospel and Appalachian music to name but a few of the genres touched on. It is beautifully unplaceable. The structure and arrangement is equally impressive and as the track builds in intensity, all sorts of instrumentation ornaments and layers up the song. At five minutes twenty-five seconds, this is the longest track on the album but not a moment is wasted or unnecessary.
If I have a criticism of this album, it is a positive one. The total running time is just over thirty minutes and although eight of the tracks are originals, two of these are short instrumentals and the title track 'Autumn's Hymn' is a glorious acappella, harmony ensemble piece that is similarly short. The two traditional songs 'Spencer The Rover' and 'Seven Gypsies' were well done, but did not add anything and were perhaps a little safe. I would have much preferred more of Jacob's original songs and a longer running time. Keep the instrumentals, but as they are so short put another two songs on and have a twelve track CD that would still come in at under forty minutes. Perhaps for album number two!
This is a very impressive debut album from Son Of John, Jacob Johnson and certainly does not sound like a first release. The assurity of the playing, the way the songs are embedded in tradition yet still remain freshly original and the marvellous recording values, all give the sense of someone several albums into their career. Then factor in at least two tracks that are outstanding examples of song writing and you have a very fine piece of music indeed.
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