Upon an initial look, Oh Susanna (the musical persona of American-born, Canadian-bred Suzie Ungerleider) appears to be just another Lilith Fair folky, but looks often are deceiving. The opening notes of her first song -- the disc's forceful title track, "Johnstown" -- reveal that she is no pastoral wallflower. Set around the Johnstown flood, the murder ballad "Johnstown" paints a gritty portrait of a soulless prostitute killer. Oh Susanna stocks her first full-length disc with similarly dark and harrowing tales. Songs like "The Bridge" and "You'll Always Be," for example, chronicle women trapped in troubled marriages. Even her happier tunes are tinged with trouble. In "Walking," the female protagonist might be a survivor, but she must live like a man to succeed. Love songs, such as "Home Soon (The Cherry Song)" and "Tangled & Wild," are bathed in sadness, although the latter tune -- the disc's closing cut -- does offer slivers of hope. Like Gillian Welch, Oh Susanna is inspired by traditional songs, but her interests dwell with country blues rather than Welch's bluegrass predilections. She sings in a fierce, bluesy style that only enhances her songs' sense of heartbreak. In "You'll Always Be," her voice reaches near-keening levels to convey the turmoil that the woman in the song is experiencing. Likewise, her determination is palpable when she sings, "I will find you/I will find you" in "Old Kate," a tale of lost love. Produced by Peter Moore(who also produced the Cowboy Junkies), the disc has a raw and noir-ish country blues sound that fits Oh Susanna's mournful but moving songs. While the arrangements generally are spare, there are moments when a dissonant piano or Hawaiian hollow-neck guitar get used to accentuate a song's turbulent emotional state. With one foot in the past and the other in the present, Oh Susanna makes Johnstown a powerfully stirring effort.
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AllMusic Review by Michael Berick
feat: Bazil Donovan