If 2006 was my year of bigger, more anthemic indie rock, then 2007 is my year of Americana. It seems that rootsier, folkier music has replaced electric driven tunes and pushed them to the back of my mind. Don't get me wrong, I'm still in love with that bombastic rock with huge, hooky choruses; it's just maybe as I age and everything's becoming more and more technologically advanced, I'm looking backwards to make sense of it all. Back to an easier time, where all you needed to record a great album was a bunch of people playing instruments in a room with a mic dangling in the center.
Which is exactly what Philadelphia-based songwriter/performer Johnny Miles accomplished beautifully here on Sign Of The Times. I'm sure he used a different recipe, and judging from the sparkling production values there was a bit more than just a mic hanging in front of a group of musicians. And what excellent musicians Mr. Miles assembles to complete his vision; the performers section in his liner notes reads like an All-Star Philly music team.
The album opens with a solo effort called Die In Debt; just a man, his acoustic guitar and harmonica pouring out emotive and powerful imagery confirming society's ills and finding refuge from it in the love of a good woman. Faces In the Wind goes from a jangly and rushed first three measures of each verse and slows itself down to a walk for the last line in each stanza, a wonderful device if I've ever seen one.
Gasoline is a Wilco-esque rocker, as if Miles was channelling Jeff Tweedy's midwestern malaise and bringing it home to the eyes, ears and hearts of Philly's collective consciousness. One of my favorite quotes from this album comes in the tracks' opening verse: This is a song about gasoline/ about golden arches and nicotine/ about hand guns and ice cream/ this is a song about a tight-rope...
The middle section has three gems in a row, acting as the centerpieceof the album. Nothing Gold, Sign Of The Times and Sailors- the first of the three is a political song. So without being preachy, Johnny breaks down the current regime's (almost) irreversible policies; America as a money-hungry corporation, 47 million without any kind of health insurance, environmental ennui, impoverished souls in the world's richest nation, and this costly and unjust war, all set to incredible piano riffs.
If you haven't been paying attention to the nightly news, allow Mr. Miles to act as the medium, and he continues his message with the album's title track. This mid-tempo ballad, however, may be about the war within each of us; the search for peace and serenity in a world gone completely mad. How do you stay sane when everything around you is crumbling?Johnny Miles' answer to the madness: "...the only thing that I can think to do is yell about it in a ballad."
Then my favorite track on Sign Of the Times, Sailors. That mandolin pulled on my heart-strings so taut that they finally snapped at the song's denouement; when banjo, mando, organ and Miles' emotive cries build to an amazing and focused crescendo.
The sonic jam at the back end of Follow Us Down may be my favorite section of music on the album, tying up the one-two punch led off by Turn & Draw, an alt-country/punk tune that lends a nod to both The Replacements and Uncle Tupelo.
Miles closes the album as he began it; solo. Sowers is a lovely little finger-picker that ties upSign Of The Times quite beautifully. And it's a gorgeous record when I think about where it has taken me, not only musically, but the photographs that flash in my mind from Johnny's accomplished lyricism. To be affected by how he captures images and puts said images into words, that's really what great music is all about.