Will Johns - Hooks and Lines
Firstly, a disclaimer. I have known the artist up for review for many years and have performed with him in the past, however, I will try to be as objective.
Will Johns’ new album, Hooks and Lines makes it’s intentions clear from the off. Opening with a gospelly blues stomp, that puts Will’s expressive, gravelly voice and his gritty overdriven guitar to the fore. It’s a theme that runs throughout the recording, Will is front and centre, the focus of attention and that is as it should be, it is after all the Will Johns band and Will is definitely the star.
The music moves on through a selection of well written blues rock tunes that open with the lead single Angel, all showcasing the John’s style of riffy, funk influenced blues rock. It mines a familiar vein to anyone who remembers the earlier stages of Will’s career, the band Glyda and even before that to the days of the Crawdaddy club in Richmond, but now things are more adult, polished and powerful, Will certainly has a distinctive musical style that he has now honed to near perfection. What is most refreshing of all is the lack of typical blues rock excess in the soloing.Throughout the album flash for flash’s sake is eschewed, not to say that there isn’t some spectacular playing, there is, and plenty of it, but it’s held in check in service of the songs. It also means that the solos are far from repetitive, and each form little stories within the song’s wider picture.
It’s clear as the album progresses that these would be the kind of songs that work extremely well live. A sense that the performances and arrangements have been honed through a busy gigging schedule. The hook is often clear from the off, and the pacing is just perfect to encourage a boogie from a live audience, while still working well on record. The album’s more introspective and quiet moments do not back away from the intensity of the rest of the recording making it a cohesive whole. The covers that have been included are true classics as well, Smuggler’s Blues and Need Your Love So Bad. Both of these are finely crafted songs, and easily capable of showing up a less able songsmith, but they don’t jar here at all, they sit finely at the end of the record, and while definitely delivered in the full style of the album, the provide a note of familiarity that can make an easier ‘in’ for unsure listeners.
While much of what I have written focuses on Will, the rest of the musicians are no slouches, there are amazing performances from the rhythm section (particularly the drummer, Craig Hudson, though Chris Scott is no slouch either), and with Lee ‘The Deal’ Spreadbury on keys doing stellar work with both electric piano and organ, the picture built up around the central figure that Will offers gives a backdrop that allows a vision to take shape and solidify into something entirely tangible. It’s here that I should mention that the title of the record is entirely appropriate, it’s filled to the brim with catchy hooks and clever lines, never has a fishing pun been more appropriate.
Production wise there is an early 90’s sheen to the recording, similar perhaps to Robert Cray or Clapton’s Journeyman. This is definitely not to say it’s dated, but more that its open and relatively dry, allowing full access to the layers of instruments and textures that will reward repeated listens with enticing new discoveries. The dryness however brings up my sole real criticism of the record, that the expertly played saxophone of Chez Grimble sounds a little sterile, purely for my taste, but sometimes a little dirt can go a long way.
Will’s last album was very good, but this new release has taken things onwards to a stellar new level, impressing at every turn and showing what a capable star will could, and should, make and while the album notes focus, quite accurately on his amazing guitar playing, I have always felt it’s his soulful, distinctive and down right enviable voice that has marked him out as different from the herd, and with this records focus on great songs and performances it really allows Will to make the most of this astounding instrument. This record deserves attention, it’s not perfect, but I can think of no records that are, and it’s as near as damn it as to make no difference. If you even have an inkling that you might like this, you owe it to yourself to check it out and give it a chance, I promise you’ll be glad you did.