Had a Burning

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Taking a more pronounced detour away from the stronger country influences of their debut and moving towards an eclectic indie rock approach, Noahjohn manages to recast both in a startlingly original sound. Having solidified the once sprawling 25-member collective into a newly-cast, five-member lineup, Carl Johns retains the same wry wit and small-town naïveté of his previous release, but has shattered any illusions of home-spun folkiness with the sinister moans of fuzzed-out slide guitar. The change is apparent from the first moments of the opening "Ima Clam," as multiple vocal lines bend and swerve around tempo changes and Johns' ominous verse. Still gloriously unpredictable and occasionally disturbing, Johns toys with the listener, drawing intricately surreal sketches, but pulling them back just before he reveals too much. Sometimes, as with the haunting fiddle of title track, Johns' words read like Biblical prophecy, with suspected dead lovers returning to give embraces with "seven hands and a tongue of fire." Adding visceral weight to images of cats eating briars and stolen drowning breaths, the hellacious moaning guitar and swirling drums of "Wounded Rabbit" sound like a studio exorcism caught on tape. Equally haunted, Eena Ballard's violin creeps around Johns's Lou Reed-ish guitar lines in "Lady Macbeth," just as the frighteningly vivid birth metaphors of the Rolling Stones-cum-Pavement feel of "Surefire Woman" isn't recommended for the weak of stomach. Still, Johns does lighten the mood with well-placed, country-styled romps starring sick dogs and death-bed bound men, even becoming a supporting player for Peter "Judge Pete Friendly" Kaesberg's spirited rendition of Louden Wainwright III's "Dead Skunk." Amazingly free of sonic or lyrical cliché, Had a Burning comes off as a suitable culmination of the early years of the alternative rock and roots country movements, presenting an incredible restoration of the freedom that was originally allowed those who chose to walk on the outskirts of those genre borders before they had fully congealed. No doubt, it's rare for a band to have enough original vision to orchestrate these kinds of risks, even rarer when they actually succeed in seeing that vision fully realized.

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