Smile Politely

Album review: Jesse W. Johnson’s Home to Roast

Of all the local bands I’ve been exposed to, Jet W. Lee reminds me the most of Superchunk. From what I’ve heard, they seem like a no frills band that lets their heavy pop riffs stand for themselves. So it’s somewhat funny that the first thing that came to my mind when I listened to Jet W. Lee frontman Jesse W. Johnson’s solo album Home to Roast was “here’s where the strings come in.” That’s the somewhat tongue-in-cheek name of a Superchunk album. But it’s a fitting description of Johnson’s solo debut — an album that is willing to put itself out there and build songs around moments of emotional heft.

In the case of Home to Roast, the aforementioned strings come in the form of viola. It might seem strange to call the viola the most important instrument on an album in which it’s not even present on most of the songs, but it’s certainly true. The viola is a subtle instrument that, when used well in rock/folk music, can lift the music to well-timed crescendos. When not used well, it’s simply a crutch. On Home to Roast, it’s most definitely the former, making appearances only when necessary. As an example, on “Jennifer Green” the viola expands on the song’s already mournful tone, especially as the emotion builds toward the end. Without it, the song would still hold its own, but it’s doubtful that the darker guitar tones would sound so desperate without the somewhat uplifting balance the viola brings.

Overall, there’s nothing earth-shattering about this album, but it’s all so very well done that it hardly matters. The mostly acoustic guitars form the framework to the songs, while Johnson’s vocals hover in weary, yet surprisingly warm, tones. Perhaps it’s a byproduct of Johnson having other musical outlets, but the lyrics are missing a lot of the overbearing, “look what I can write” typical of most singer/songwriter albums. That’s not to discount the importance of words throughout — it’s just to say the lyrics often come across as much more natural than is typical.

In terms of structure, the album has a nice cohesion. “Coyote Scream” is an early highlight with a nice loping feel that verges on rock, but still manages to keep an easy pace: boisterous, yet restrained. The album peaks with “My Moonshine Shoes” which is somehow reminiscent of hundreds of other songs I’ve heard before, yet sounds like none of them. And I consider it a huge compliment to Johnson’s singing and songwriting that the culminating lyrics “I’m thirsty for you” don’t sound nearly as weird as they should.

Home to Roast ultimately succeeds because, like his work with Jet W. Lee, Johnson doesn’t feel the need to dazzle with huge arrangements or studio magic. He has the confidence in his songwriting to let the music work for itself, adding subtle tones to accentuate what’s already there. He’s probably not shooting for the stars with this release. And he certainly doesn’t need to.

Johnson and his band Jet W. Lee (who I think all live in Chicago now) play the Cowboy Monkey on Saturday night with the Palace Flophouse, Mikey’s Imaginary Friends, and Miles Neilson ($5, 9:30 p.m.)

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