By Johnny Firecloud at 3:49 PM Monday, July 5th 2010
Alain Johannes has a Rock resume your heroes would marvel at. In fact, he’s probably played with them at some point. With his fingers in various sonically-delicious pies – including Them Crooked Vultures, Eleven, Queens of The Stone Age, Spinnerette, PJ Harvey and Mark Lanegan, among others – Johannes has established himself as not only a cornerstone player in desert godfather Josh Homme’s universe, but a remarkably formidable musical force of his own.
At last, Johannes is set to step into his own light with the release of his first solo album, Spark, out now via Dangerbird Records & Rekords Rekords.
QOTSA/Crooked Vultures frontman and bandmate Homme, whose Rekords Rekords label will co-release Spark as the virgin release of a new partnership with Dangerbird Records, gave the album a glowing send-up: “Alain’s record is the total embodiment of what the label stands for – the war against endorsing mediocrity and the uncensored attempt to take a leap off the musical cliff. Spark is a stunning examination of figuring out what you do when someone’s gone, and it’s utterly breathtaking. Because Alain plays, produces, records and sings, there’s no plumbing between his feelings and what the music sounds like.”
Opening track and first single Endless Eyes is a soulfully enchanting & breathlessly rhythmic ode to Natasha Shneider, Johannes’ late wife, creative partner and bandmate in Eleven / QOTSA. She’s also the center focus of the album. After cancer claimed her life in 2008, Homme, Johannes and friends organized an all-star benefit show in Los Angeles to celebrate Shneider’s life. Alain wrote Endless Eyes specifically for the concert, and the track became a catalyst for the album itself.
“The story started with that song,” Johannes explains. “It’s the most direct ode to Natasha and the wonderful time we had together-it’s specifically about my love and admiration for her. She had a wonderful soul, natural intelligence, humor and internal funkiness, and she’s the most amazing musician I’ve ever met.”
Between his time touring and recording with Them Crooked Vultures, Spark began to take form. Once the songs were written, he found a four-day period last November to record and mix the entire album at his home studio. It was an isolated process, though Alain had no shortage of high-profile local support to lend a hand.
“I had a lot of friends offer to help me record, but something told me that wasn’t the way to do it,” he explained. “I had to be alone in that space.”
Despite the subject matter and mourning inspiration, Johannes opted to explore the colors of his affections rather than dwell strictly in the grays of sorrow. A romantic Beatles influence is strong on Return To You, a poppy heartsong that stands among the album’s most commercially appealing tracks. Love is conveyed through a sunshine melody, backed by a vocal bassline and stick-tapping percussion. Elegant string textures arrive via that remarkable little cigar box guitar that’s become Johannes’ signature instrument.
A whirlwind rhythmic ability is immediately evident in Speechless, featuring a mosquito-esque strumming style not unlike the opening to TCV’s Highway One. It’s a track one could envision morphing into the Vultures zone, with Homme-like vocal arrangement and ghostly progression.
A true sampling of Alain’s value, his rich streaks of musical brilliance, is found on album standout Make God Jealous – a largely instrumental ride that runs nearly five breathless minutes, highlit by a haunting Lanegan-esque vocal centerpiece and a stylistic versatility on the guitar that absolutely hijacks the senses. Lush harmonics, spastically frantic grooves and an ever-increasing tempo skyrocket the album’s replay value. (watch an excellent live version here – thanks Trina)
Shades of flamenco, Eastern and classical guitar influence are threaded throughout Spark, most flagrantly so in the Spanish-flavored six-string action of Gentle Ghosts, a captivating gallop through two and a half minutes in which Johannes drops the closest thing to a Scott Weiland impression we’ve heard from anyone – and a damn good one at that.
The harmonies and gentle hummingbird rhythm of Spider evoke thoughts of Natasha, properly segueing into The Bleeding Whole, a somber slow-step with layered vocals gently swaying through a graveyard of sparse guitars and infrequent distant kick drum stomps, building darkly, like a flower blossoming in moonlight.
Here comes nothing I know / Wings are floating downstream / To the sea again, begin / This whole world left hanging / I feel it all / Emptiness fills the bleeding whole, he mourns, with a haunting melodic structure. It’s in moments like these that the listener must make a decision: Appreciate the astounding musicianship and greatness of the song on its own, at face value, or actually explore and experience a vicarious dose of the pain and loss being conveyed here? To engage in the latter would be to flirt with devastation, a raw truth so haunting, tragic and bare that the tear ducts become inevitably involved by the end of the first chorus.
Spark explores an even-heeled balance between tribute, mourning and send-off romanticism that speaks volumes of not only Alain’s songwriting and performance abilities, but as a testament to his production prowess. It’s a purely-driven full-circle experience in ways that only one in his shoes can truly understand. “I actually finished the album 25 years to the day that Natasha and I met- November 29, 2009,” he explains. “That was our anniversary. In many ways, I was really just trying to make a record that she would be proud of.”
After one, two, fifteen listens and more, we’ve not a shred of doubt that she would be. This album is for guitar aficionados, for lovers of naked, powerfully honest music, for the eternally insatiable message board minions who scour the cyberscape for all things related to the world of Homme for another dose of Rock excellence, whether desert-infused or otherwise. They can rest comfortably, knowing there’s a new and very special gem in the family crown.