An Absence of Sway (2009)

If THE CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN WITH A TRIANGLE was all about the six-string banjo and acoustic guitar, this album is all about the piano and ukulele — and for the first time it’s a real acoustic piano. In a few places the tuning is a little drifty (I started recording with the instrument the day it showed up, before anyone had a chance to give it its first official tuning outside of the factory), but I kind of like that it’s not a typical “perfect” piano sound at work.

The plan was to get a Yamaha C5 after I fell in love with one of those monsters. That didn’t work out, for a whole lot of obvious reasons (space and money were the main considerations). I got a Yamaha U1 instead.

I think I’m glad I ended up with an upright — or at least this upright — and not just because it was less expensive and easier to find a place to put it. It turns out there are times when I prefer the sound of an upright piano. There’s an earthy, organic quality you don’t really get from a lot of grands. You’re not going to get as refined a sound out of a vertical piano, to be sure. The lowest and highest notes won’t have the same power or clarity as a top-shelf grand piano. But the piano I got was the right one and the right sound for me. It still is.

Though it’s grown richer-sounding over the years as it’s settled into itself, I think the U1 sounds pretty spiffy here right out of the box. Even when it’s only a background texture, it adds a weight to the music that wouldn’t be there otherwise. There’s so much complexity living in the sound of an acoustic piano. Even the best digital pianos can’t replicate it. I had no idea what I was missing all those years I spent thinking I had no great need for the real thing.

In some ways this feels like a logical progression from CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, taking the folky/bluesy atmosphere that album established and bending it in some new directions. The sloppy multi-tracked vocals are still all over the place, with barely an unaccompanied voice in sight. The roomy brushed drum sound is back again with a vengeance. But while there are a few songs that might have fit onto CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN without too much trouble and my mixing job is again pretty erratic, this one is a pretty different creature.

For one thing, it’s a winter album. Listening to these songs always brings back memories for me of the strange, turbulent snow-covered months I spent recording them. I was pretty much a mess, only I didn’t know it at first, trying to process a violent home invasion during which I was threatened with rape and death along with unrequited romantic feelings for a friend that would soon blow up in my face.

By the time the next album came around, the gravity of what happened and how much it screwed me up would sink in, and the music would become more knotted and confrontational. Here I was still in shock. But it was clear something wasn’t right.

The first sound you hear is a percussive piano line repeating over and over again, as if announcing the arrival of the new beast with black and white teeth. The first song (Revenge Is Sweet) takes a while to find itself, and when it does, the first line is not some cluster of words with no personal feelings attached, but a simple, honest statement: “I’m getting tired of wanting things that don’t take kindly to being wanted.”

That says a lot about my state of mind at the time. And there’s more going on here on a sonic and tonal level — both in the song and throughout the album — than there was on the album that came before, even if it’s still pretty sparse compared to what was ahead.

There’s a serious drop-off in the twangy CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN electric guitar sound. I didn’t want to fall into a comfortable sonic pattern there, so I made a point of trying to fill up space with different things. There isn’t a single electric guitar line anywhere until the fifth song.

A number of new sounds show up instead. This album features the recorded debut of a hammered dulcimer. I doubt I’ll ever master that thing in any conventional way, but it was a fun sound to add to the palette. Also showing up for the first time are some odd bits of percussion and a few more funky old guitars (thanks to the 1932 Regal that became a big part of the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound, I was now hooked on hidden gem vintage acoustic guitars, and here that Regal is joined by a 1954 Kay K22 and a 1950s Futuramic Archtop), along with some other miscellaneous noise-makers from various walks of life.

Anything that sounds like a mandolin is really a ukulele. It’s surprising how versatile those little things can be once you get one that isn’t a toy. On The Ass, Enchanted with the Sound, the uke even manages to sound a little like a classical guitar. The old Arp Omni-2 analog synth gets some love as well after a long period of neglect, adding some colour to Capricorn Cloves and Disowned Umbrellas before really doing some heavy lifting on The Ass, Enchanted with the Sound.

Do the Mountain Hop is one of those songs that seemed to bubble up from some mysterious other place, with no prompting from me. For whatever reason, I felt like trying to sound a bit unlike myself, which led to singing with my throat most of the way closed. I’ve messed around with a lot of different voices over the years. This was more like engaging muscles that are usually ignored and then not being sure what to do with them.

I wouldn’t recommend trying that for any extended period of time. After a while it gets a little uncomfortable, and your throat starts to wonder what you’re doing to it. But it was a fun little experiment, and I enjoy the way the singing doesn’t sound a whole lot like me. It kind of sounds like I’m trying to emulate Tim Buckley circa 1968, at least until the very end when my normal voice breaks out for half a second.

I like how the title of the song is misleading, too. Sounds like it’s going to be some uptempo stomp (“Do the Mountain Hop! It’s the hip new dance craze!”), when it’s really more of a melancholy little waltz.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue feels like the climax of the whole album. I almost made it the last track, before a few more fell out late in the game and decided they wanted to be last. It’s probably one of the most emotionally naked things I’ve done in recent years, in its own way. More on that — and the music video — over here.

It’s one of those things that’s made up of just a few chords repeated over and over again, and it’s all buildup with no release until it dissolves into nothing, but it felt right and has always been one of my favourite things on the album. Similar story with Your Sweaty Golden Mouth. Just a few chords, and I was tempted to layer things a lot more than I did, but it felt like it came out the way it needed to be, so I wasn’t about to mess with it. The little ukulele harmony bit right at the end has always been one of my favourite moments on the album. Will Work for Food is simpler still — a two-chord song written in five minutes.

I have no idea where these things come from. But i’ll take ’em.

This album isn’t quite as packed as the last one was in terms of the sheer number of songs. That’s mostly down to some of the tunes being longer this time out. Only two songs on CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN cracked the four minute mark. Sixteen of them were over in less than half that time.

Just the first four tracks here, meanwhile, take up about twenty minutes between them. Felt like it was time to start working with longer forms again.

Some little song shards were still going to worm their way into the fabric of the album one way or another. A lot of those were unexpected improvisations. It felt like they needed to be there to play off of the things that got the chance to stretch their legs a bit more.

I like the way the first half or so of the album is made up of tracks that lead into one another pretty smoothly, and then things get a little jerky and a lot stranger. Feels like there’s a divide between the first and second half, like two sides of a very long vinyl record. And there are little moments of nakedness and truth in some of the stranger songs, hiding in plain sight.

Shoelaces of the World, Untie sounds like straight silliness, but the one discernible chunk of words is, “Obviously there’s something wrong with you,” followed by a crazed-sounding vocal shriek. Roof Rats is mostly instrumental, but I felt then (and still feel now) that I somehow managed to capture in the music a little of what the inside of my head looked like at the time. There’s always been something claustrophobic about that one for me.

I like that there’s viola on The Sun is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight — the first guest spot on one of my solo albums in a decade. I thought I’d try to get a few friends to lend their voices and instrumental prowess to a few things this time out. That got downsized to just asking one person if they’d be into playing on something.

I liked the song before, but the viola elevated it to some other place. Though I’m no longer friends with the person who played that part (long story), I can at least be glad I was able to get a little bit of magic out of the friendship before it all went down the tubes.

The funny thing about the song is that it’s a narrative piece delivered in the voice of a made-up character — something I haven’t dipped into very often in the past decade or so. From around the time of NUDGE YOU ALIVE, when I started making a point of moving away from how personal things had become over the stretch of albums running from SUBLIMINAL BILE to OH YOU THIS, my lyrics grew more elliptical, often more about images or impressions than telling any kind of linear story. Instead of returning to the demented role-playing that came before all the uninhibited stuff, I’ve tried to take a different path — tried to find something different to do with the words. “New ways of saying old things,” like the song title says.

So it’s interesting to me when a song goes against the grain almost in spite of itself and decides it wants to tell a story in a voice that isn’t my own. This one is written as a letter from a ne’er-do-well father to the son he never knew. It isn’t clear if the father is seeking some sort of reconciliation in this life or the next. The question of whether or not the son was born in the first place is left open to interpretation. What is clear is that he owes money to some bad people and doesn’t expect to be breathing much longer. The best he figures he can hope for is sending postcards to his son from hell.

Of course, it’s not all darkness and loss. You’ve also got a catchy tune about ripping your heart out of your chest and chucking it out a window in an effort to avoid future romantic entanglements.

Something a little odd: the word “heart” shows up in three different song titles (all of them ukulele-driven tunes) without ever appearing once in the lyrics until the very last song.

Another fun little detail is Johnny Smith saying, “Happy New Year,” in the middle of Shoelaces of the World, Untie just before everything drops out for the mason jar percussion coda. It was a moment that happened off-mic, so he’s buried in the mix, but if you really listen for it you should be able to pick him out.

This seems to be a lot of people’s favourite album of mine. It’s pretty much tied with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN, as far as I can tell. I’m not sure why those two stand out. Maybe it’s because, for many, these were the first two albums of mine they ever heard.

Or it might not be that simple. I feel like there’s something in these songs that sets them apart from a lot of my other work — some kind of magnetic quality that’s difficult to put into words. Maybe some of that has to do with the feelings of urgency that fed into making the stuff. I spent most of the time i was recording this album convinced I was going to drop dead at any minute (PTSD will do fun things to your brain), with no idea how much time I had left to get all the music out. I was trying to get as much done as I could in whatever time I had left.

CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN was a pretty happy album for me. This one was a murkier affair. For whatever reason, those murky times seem to be when some of the most interesting stuff falls out.

There were plenty more murky times ahead.

TRACKS:

Revenge Is Sweet
New Ways of Saying Old Things
Do the Mountain Hop
The Sun is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight
Defenestrate Your Heart
Capricorn Cloves
Survival of the Least Fit
Water to Town
Centipede Marriage Proposal
Will Work for Food
Shoelaces of the World, Untie
Disowned Umbrellas
Armida
Your Sweaty Golden Mouth
Roof Rats
Evil Hid Has a Square Torso
When Your Heart Skips a Beat
This Bed is a Bear Trap
Spider Ventriloquist
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondue
Feeling
The Ass, Enchanted with the Sound

LISTEN:

Defenestrate Your Heart

Water to Town

3 comments

  1. From “Ear Gravy” in the March ’09 WAMM…

    Leesa Bringas…
    Johnny West – An Absence of Sway (2009)
    Johnny West, a guy that does a lot of things on his own: he composes and plays a vast array of musical and non-musical instruments, he skillfully records and engineers his own albums, and his generosity that has him distributing his music for free to all. The two key elements which bring me back to the music of Johnny West—he is a damn good story writer with a unique vocal style; simple as that.

    Stephen Hargreaves…
    Johnny West – An Absence of Sway (2009)
    Windsor’s Johnny West is something of an enigma, while prolific in his studio (releasing 26 records over the last 10 years) he remains a virtual stranger to the stage. Stranger still, he gives all of his music away free, leaving me curious as to how he was recently able to buy a piano, but after listening to An Absence of Sway, I don’t care if he stole it. The piano drives West’s recent effort; upon that framework, he delicately weaves atmospheres of acoustic guitar, dulcimer, synthesizers, ukulele, and a barrage of other instruments all of which West proves to be equally competent. The ultimate strength of West’s material lies in the song writing, and the compositions of An Absence of Sway are among his best. Best of all when I listen to An Absence of Sway, I don’t analyze or critique, (like I usually default to nowadays) I just thoroughly enjoy spending time with the songs.

  2. Well…man (and woman). Thanks so much for the kind words. Also, I think “Ear Gravy” is possibly the best name I’ve ever heard for a music review section in a magazine. Which reminds me — I need to grab a copy of the latest issue of WAMM…

    As for the piano and how it came into my life, it’s kind of an odd story. I had my heart set on a Yamaha C5 grand piano, which is a gorgeous instrument, but one that happens to cost about as much as a nice new car. With air conditioning. And leather seats. And GPS. It’s also so enticing that I fear — if I had ended up with that piano — I may have had a hard time prying myself away from it long enough to play anything else. And, least importantly, there wouldn’t have been enough room for it in this house.

    Anyway, to make a long story somewhat bite-sized, I decided it would be best to compromise and try to find a nice upright instead, for financial and space reasons. I also had some money unexpectedly fall into my lap at right about that time, when someone passed away and left me a surprise inheritance. We didn’t part on good terms, and we hadn’t communicated at all in years, so I assumed they had written me out of their will. Turns out I was wrong. And it turned out to be just about exactly the right amount to cover the piano I decided was the one for me, almost down to the dollar.

    Funny how things will work out like that sometimes. And bizarre.

    For the longest time I didn’t even have any desire to own a real piano. I thought a good emulation was more than good enough, and best of all it didn’t need any upkeep or tuning. Now I don’t know how I ever did without the beast. It’s just so ridiculously inspiring to play a real, living, breathing instrument, especially when you’ve spent most of your life playing digital pianos of varying quality. I still think the Clavinova is quite nice as those things go, and it’s served me well over the past thirteen years or so, but it can’t compete with the real thing.

    I should stop rambling before this comment turns into a blog post…

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