Lang proves once again that his vocals are as formidable and visceral as his guitar playing. Add some solid songwriting, punch-in-the-gut production, and a solid group of players, and Signs is anything but your typical blues record.
11 tracks / 47:13
Jonny Lang could simply be content to build on his legendary status as a ‘blues-guitar prodigy.’ He could fill his catalog with albums full of endless rehashing of blues standards, dazzling us with his fretboard wizardry in marathon-jam sessions. We’d eat it up – But Lang decided not to take the easy road. Instead of just displaying his guitar chops, he creates music that takes the blues several steps further, stepping up a product-saturated genre and introducing nuance and introspection without sacrificing grit and earthiness. On his new project, Signs, the artist proves once again that his vocals are as formidable and visceral as his guitar playing. Add to that some solid songwriting, punch-in-the-gut production, and a solid group of players, and Signs is anything but your typical blues record.
It’s hard to describe Jonny Lang’s guitar playing. It’s not clean or technical. You won’t learn technique here – no tapping, harmonics, and very little use of effects. Lang seems to be strangling the notes out of his guitar, but when they get out they fly. It’s as if the notes take over where the vocals end - screaming, crying, tortured sounds. Lang’s playing sounds dirty and visceral, howling from the soul, and not always going where planned. It would be a mistake to say that the soloing almost sounds sloppy in places, but it does occasionally sound out of control but in a very, very good way – just like real life. Always mixed up front, the soloing never overpowers the song but becomes an integral part of the experience of the baring of a musician’s soul. Imagine someone running up to you in distress, begging and screaming in another language but somehow you know exactly what he means. That’s a bit like the way Johnny plays.
The stark, raw opener, “Making it Move,” is an old-school shouting blues performed with minimal accompaniment other than Lang’s tortured vocal and guitar, Drew Ramey’s bass and a chain-gang style stomp-and-chant. “Snakes” adds a traditional drum kit to the mix, but with Lang still sounding very old-school. The lyrics to this funky shuffle are full of regret about not heeding the warnings about ‘snakes in the grass,’ the variety of which sound as at home in Eden as in your own backyard. “Shoulda’ listened to my momma when she told me there was danger on that road,” sings Lang, sounding like he really means it.
The rocking, driving “Last Man Standing” opens with the line “Where can I run when the sky is falling?” as the albums shifts briefly from more traditional blues to straight-ahead blues-rock. Jonny’s powerhouse drummer, Barry Alexander (featured on every track except “Stronger Together,” where the great Dan Needham sits behind the kit) propels the track forward like a locomotive. It’s back to a slow, deliberate blues with “Signs,” as Lang spits out funky blues licks and a fluid falsetto vocal refrain crying out, “these are the times, these are the signs – who’s gonna’ make it right?” Listen for the tasty outro by bassist Jim Anton on the fade.
“What You’re Made Of” is a tasty blend of Gospel and funky pop, with great back-up vocals, Jonny’s amazing falsetto making a surprising appearance near the end, and the band firing on all cylinders. Long-time band member Dwan Hill, along with Shannon Sanders, bring it to church on the keyboards. “Bitter End” is a more conventional rock song, with a sentiment that seems to be an anti-war (or certainly an anti-violence) song - this is contrasted by the soul/pop/funk of the catchy “Stronger Together,” probably the lightest song on the album, both musically and lyrically.
“Into The Light,” whether about prison or some more sinister abyss (my guess is the latter), is a strong, rocking track that starts with the kind of funky, chunky rhythm guitar that Sly and the Family Stone used frequently, but with less of an ominous intent. The melody and the vocals are the real stars of “Bringing Me Back Home,” a tearful, confessional love song nestled in piano, bass, drums, Hammond organ and some sweet, tasty guitar licks – Lang’s solo is a delicate, bluesy thing of beauty. The outro/ending is stunningly emotional.
It’s back to the chain-gang blues for “Wisdom.” Lang’s guitar doesn’t gently weep – it screams.
Coming out of left field, “Singing Songs” has somewhat of a European ambiance about it. Starting with a very clean guitar and vocal intro, the song builds and builds, adding a drum-corps rhythm, stately Procol-Harum style organ, solo violin, and orchestral background. Dramatic and full of emotion, the song almost creates its own genre – and one I’d love to hear explored more in-depth. This haunting track stays with you long after the album ends.
The songs are co-written by Jonny Lang and various collaborators (most – but not all of which – are usually also players on the tracks), and Lang also shares co-production credits for each song in a similar way. Signs is another heartfelt project by Jonny Lang, who could easily become another guitar super-star if that was his choice – instead, he produces visceral audio documents of who he is. Under the pain that’s obvious in his delivery is also a hope, in that he has learned the lessons he sings about. He’s still learning what he’s made of, he’s battled that snake, and he’ll be the last man standing.
- Bert Saraco
- 4 ½ tocks