We’ll skip the proper introductions, and assume you’re well-acquainted with Alain Johannes‘ body of work by now – as you probably should be. From his early days with the band Eleven, to touring with QOTSA and producing/playing on several related acts’ albums, his track record is extensive, and quite impressive. Slightly less familiar is Johannes’ solo output, with 2010’s brilliant Spark being the only record he’d put out on his own, until now. The release of Fragments & Wholes, Vol. 1, his second LP, is finally here, and it couldn’t have come sooner.
As Johannes told us in an extensive interview recently, the period between Spark and Fragments & Wholes came with significant changes in his life: whereas Spark was a beautiful tribute to his late wife Natasha Shneider, the new record’s release was preceded by the passing away of his mother and father. While Johannes continues to pour his heart and soul into the music, this LP actually sets itself apart from its predecessor, both musically and lyrically. While Spark hit the listener with the gut-wrenching significance of the words right away, almost requiring a step back to take it all in, this LP lets the music come and settle in first.
The main difference anyone will notice right away is the choice of instruments on Fragments and Wholes, as Johannes goes for a “full band” sound on most of the album, albeit recording everything himself. Anyone missing his heavier days with Eleven will rightfully get their fill here, as Saturn Wheel reintroduces Johannes’ electric guitar sound to the listener in explosive fashion. It all brings back that perfect balance of a controlled, heavy-hitting rhythm session and a vocal melody just begging to be released during the chorus. The guitar solo on Jack of Wands speaks for itself, and even slower numbers like Welcome give hope that we’ll see more of Alain’s skills on the electric soon enough.
Even though those tracks tend to stand out, they shouldn’t come in detriment of the acoustic numbers, which serve the album just as effectively, and are far from a rerun of Spark material. Whether complex and layered (Swan and Crow) or bare-bones (Where Angels Crawl), everything sounds moving and diverse. Despite often expanding his reach, Johannes knows just where to stop. Kaleidoscope, the album’s centerpiece, and easily one of the best things he’s ever put to tape, goes on for what seems like an epic length, but it’s tightly controlled at just over four minutes; meanwhile, It Is and Pebble Tears, the tracks between which Kaleidoscope is placed, get their point across in just 90 seconds.
After several listens, it’s clear that Fragments & Wholes, Vol. 1 hits all the marks a solo record like this should, and then goes a bit beyond. It easily surpasses Spark in terms of content, at 12 amazing tracks rather than 8, while successfully steering towards different musical themes. Even though his recent production and recording work with Mark Lanegan and Brody Dalle are impressive in their own rights, we can’t help but feel that this is his definitive record in 2014. As the excellent closing number Let It Gnaw ends, it’s amazing to see how far this LP stretched Alain Johannes’ skills, and leaves one wondering what’s next. Vol. 2 can’t come soon enough either.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.