Johnny Boy
Johnny Boy
2005
B+



so, pop and politics. Never comfortable bedfellows, are they? Pop's nature—the generalizations, the reduction—tends to make for didactic and preachy politics, while political discourse, well, tends to be kind of a downer. When they collide, one side always loses: “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” had one of Kanye's most limp-dick beats on it, and do we ever need to discuss “American Life” again? It's come to the point where, these days, the idea of pop stars going political (yes, even Bono, who plainly means it for real) reeks to some of cynical calculation; hitching their shiny-object glamour to an issue can seem imperial at best (and exploitative at worst). But even with that aside, who wants to bump uglies to a song about starving children or Third World debt?

And then we have Johnny Boy. This London duo have packed up every contradictory impulse they can find into a brick and sent it through your window. It's a world-beating pop record, but it wants naught to do with the status-quo world. Remember that fantastic nu-Spector stunner from last summer with the awesome title, “You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve?” It was something of a modest hit in the UK, as well as a blogger fave, and it's front-loaded onto this, their self-titled debut, which, as of this writing, you can only get via an obscure little indie label in Sweden. Check that expensive-looking pro-style logo, and that very designed bit of gleamingly romantic urban decay on the cover. What's their big beef? Rampant materialism. The album's entire, perfectly brief, length is a grand, giggling wallow in those contradictions; joyfully shouting down dehumanizing consumerism and money-grubbing out of one side of their mouths, sneering evilly at pop convention out of the other side, and singing great, widescreen blockbusters out of the front. It's a herald for the common man, but less Clifford Odetts, more Emma Goldman.

The pair (“Davo” and “Lolly,” on vocals, loops, and guitars) pump out a humongous, thoroughly ingratiating, wholesale pillage of 50 years or so of British and American pop—Motown swagger, bleary late-night trip-hop, Northern Soul, Phil Spector (a main, if updated, point of inspiration), Brian Wilson, um, U2—all treated with equal parts love and contempt. That is, love for the music, and contempt for its ancillaries: its product-ness, its insularity, the indifference to certain aspects of the everyday to which popular music is normally so averse. Every word drips with anti-establishment, even anti-pop, sentiment. On “Living In the City,” the Big-Beatiest thing this side of the Chemical Brothers (oh yes), Lolly spits out an alternate-universe club travelogue from the “all-night Twilight Zone,” where she refuses “a cheetah and a chocolate throne,” and yelps with faux-glee at the “16,000 Sony beatboxes tuned into rock and roll,” while the enormous drums pound away and the guitars spin off into the ether. They mug the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars and clean them up a bit for “War on Want,” a sort of call-to-arms. “Don't want a home, don't want a car, don't want no family, don't want no friends... don't want no one to hold me, don't want a cake and I don't want to eat it....” “Not everyone is curious to the sake of ideas. Keep it in the home, don't tell your friends...” she croons, then yelps, lambasting basically every pop lyric I can think of in one stroke. Lolly sings with an easy-going grace firmly in the tradition of Blue-Eyed Soul, somewhere in the Petula Clark-Geri Halliwell continuum, with just enough venom for the right spots, so even when the music is all over the map, as it almost always is—“Bonnie Parker's 115th Dream” has the best chorus U2 have done in years; “All Exits Final” folds in the Byrds and Kinks—a single focus still comes into view.

And I didn't even get to “You Are the Generation...”, still the most glorious thing here, with its “Be My Baby” intro, blaring horns, and pure happiness at the idea of shouting down the shrill voice of commerce. “I still can't help believing, but believing sees me cursed,” she coos, at perhaps her gentlest, most introspective moment, and there's a world of horror, angst, vitriol, and defiance in that line, as everywhere else; but there's also unadulterated joy and tons of unabashed fun, without retraction or apology or deference, just fist-pumping, hip-swaggering, and bonkers tunes. Emma G. knew her revolution when she saw it—it didn't dive into monkish asceticism just for the sake of it, and didn't rob life of its simple joys—and Johnny Boy know theirs just as well.


Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2006-01-18
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