With only three records to his name Fingertip Slip (Blue Note, '99), Language (Blue Note, '00), and now his new release, Poetry of Appliance guitarist Richard Leo Johnson has managed to create a small but vital body of work that combines the best of Ralph Towner, Leo Kottke, Steve Tibbetts and Michael Hedges. Working mainly on acoustic guitar, and a double-neck one that has both six and twelve-string variants to boot, Johnson has evolved a self-taught style that, like the best of his influences, is intriguing in its orchestral scope and distinctive in its approach.
On Poetry of Appliance Johnson débuts his first permanent group, which includes Ricardo Ochoa on violins and theremin and Andrew Ripley on a wind-driven synthesizer, melodica and an oscillator effect called a Frostwave Resonator. While the combination of wind instrument (albeit one that can synthesize a wide variety of sounds), violin and primarily acoustic guitar might lead one to believe this will be a somewhat chamber-like session, the truth is that, along with a virtuoso technique and a bevy of found tunings, Johnson can be a percussive player who provides the rhythmic drive that such a grouping might lack. Tracks like "Glide Path" truck along with plenty of forward motion, and an approach that resembles some of the best Newgrass work of artists including Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.
On the other hand, the group is capable of elegant subtlety. "Charmin' Carmen" begins with Ochoa creating a thick texture by feeding his violin through a delay, a precursor to Johnson's entry with a harp-like tuning, and an uncanny ability to imply rhythm even while the track is filled with air. The tender "Eulogy" sounds how Ralph Towner might if he were to tackle Americana music. Following Johnson's solo introduction, Ripley's melodica reiterates the theme, sounding somewhere between a harmonica and accordion, only to be followed by Ochoa's violin as the trio converges into one.
While Johnson covers much stylistic territory, his Arkansas roots are clearly evident throughout in the underlying folksiness of his writing. And as complex as his compositions are, as multihued the textures and as irregular as the meters can sometimes be, the entire disc flows with a purpose. While there is a world of difference between the progressive leanings of "4 Months, 4 Days" and the darker "The Moon is a Sky Thing," where Johnson's electric playing and the overall ambience bring to mind some of Tibbetts' best work, the tunes seem to flow seamlessly from one to the next. The sequencing is simply so well thought-out that one is hardly aware that one tune has ended and a new piece begun, giving the album the feeling of a continuous suite.
Johnson's innovative playing and vividly visual writing style elevate him to a place right beside his influences. Johnson has reached the point, with Poetry of Appliance, where rather than being "influenced by" he becomes plainly influential in his own right.
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Personnel: Highway 420 Revisited; Charmin' Carmen; Meditation on Hymn: Her to Hymn; Glide Path; Eulogy; Haploid Springs; 4 Months, 4 Days; The Moon is a Sky Thing