One look at the cover of guitarist Richard Leo Johnson's latest album, with its sepia-toned photograph of a serious-looking Johnson seated with a Duolian steel-bodied guitar, and you might expect a radical departure from Poetry of Appliance (Cuneiform, 2004). And you'd not be far from wrong. Unlike Johnson's last record, which featured his esoteric working trio and a multiplicity of guitars, The Legend of Vernon McAlister is a true solo albumone man, one guitar.
Equally, the Americana of "Morning Glory, where Johnson layers an elliptically Frisellian melody over propulsive strumming, would certainly suggest he's gone all folksy. But while he's always been equal parts Leo Kottke and Steve Tibbetts, it would be cavalier to assess the record on the basis of that opening track alone. As it abruptly ends, an ambient wash segues into "Love and Trouble, a minor-key tune where fingerpicking, slide and heavily processed sonics create something that's as idiosyncratically Johnson as Frisell's skewed version of Americana is his own.
The album's premise revolves around Vernon McAlisterthe original owner of the guitar Johnson uses, given to him by a neighbour who simply said, "See what you can do with this. Knowing nothing about the enigmatic McAlister, Johnson set about creating a cycle of miniatures best experienced as a wholefew of the twenty tracks break the three-minute mark, and a third of them are under two. Artists often talk about their albums having narrative flow, but in this case it's true. Some pieces have strong thematic motifs, while others are purely textural and only work as linking passages between more conventionally structured songs.
The melancholy "Everything is Beautiful and Sad and emotionally resonant "Whatever You Want, Whatever You Need hint at where Jerry Douglas might be were he less tightly aligned with Nashville, but elsewhere Johnson is considerably more experimental. It may be just one man and one guitar, but it's also one man with a lot of outboard gear in his studio, as well as some unusual approaches to the guitar that will come as no surprise to listeners familiar with previous albums.
How he creates a flute-like melody on the two-chord, 10/4 vamp of "Angry Angel is a mystery, although the reverse attack that creates orchestral swells on "Briar Patch Harmony is considerably more obvious. Elsewhere he bows the guitar on the harmonic-driven "Quarter-Tone Soldiers Marching on the Mill, makes "Boxcar Dreams and Dark Tunnels otherworldly through copious amounts of reverb, and applies a treatment to "Koto Cries Whiskey to give his guitar the requisite oriental flavour.
Hardly the roots record that the cover and instrument's 1930s vintage would suggest. Completely consistent with but still a departure from his earlier records, The Legend of Vernon McAlister finds Johnson as adventurous as ever. With an arsenal of unusual playing and production techniques, he has created an album that is filled with strong melodies but, perhaps more importantly, shows just how far one can take a simple premise if only one has a vivid enough imagination.
Personnel: Richard Leo Johnson: 1930s National Duolian steel-bodied guitar.