Johnathan Rice

Further North

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It's too easy to call Johnathan Rice the reigning king of Los Angeles indie rock to Jenny Lewis' reigning queen -- way too easy, in fact. For one, Rice has never recorded for anything remotely resembling an indie label, signing to Reprise when he was just out of his teens, but more to the point, calling this trembling singer/songwriter a king overstates his stature greatly. Jenny Lewis may indeed rule Silver Lake in 2007, but Johnathan Rice is no king; he's her boy prince, living in her shadow as a singer and a songwriter and seeming every one of the seven years her junior. And 2007's Further North, his second full-length album, is as every bit the transparent bid for mainstream crossover success as Rilo Kiley's 2007 magnum opus, Under the Blacklight, but where that album trafficked in studied SoCal sex fantasies, this dwells on the other side of the Californian coin, obsessed with Los Angeles geography and the broken dreams they contain. Appropriately, Further North adapts the sound of laid-back '70s southern Californian country-rock, relying on a heavy dose of Neil Young (complete with an allusion to "The Middle of the Road" that feels pulled straight from the liner notes of Decade), but the album has a dull, leaden lumber when the electric guitars clatter and a sleepy shimmer when the acoustic guitars roll. This has been so smoothed out and polished that Rice winds up sounding not too dissimilar to Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers, which is just about as mainstream as it gets and certainly not the intention of Rice, who labors over his lyrics (sometimes with the assistance of Lewis) with the fastidious meticulousness of a collegiate creative writing major. That -- along with the closing "It Is Best to Keep It All Inside," a creeping slice of creepy introspection that feels pulled from the Conor Oberst songbook -- is where the indie-ness comes in, as Rice obsesses over death and the desert (sometimes within one song, as in the appropriately titled "We're All Stuck Out in the Desert," a title that's answered with the punchline of "and we're gonna die"), heartaches and malaise. Such solipsism is part and parcel of indie songwriters of the 2000s, so Rice fits easily among this crew, although he's just a bit too indebted to classic country-rock to be a musical kindred spirit; surely, Reprise is where he belongs because Further North is inspired by classic '70s Reprise records, right down to its cover photo. But while Rice gets the sound right, his music is generally as labored as his words, striving to say something instead of just saying it -- and the Byrdsian "What Am I Going to Do?" shows that Rice can be better when he's not trying be important and merely writes instead of making a big production of it, but that's only one all too brief moment of fresh air on this muddled sophomore affair.

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