It sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it – you have heard these techniques before, but you haven’t heard them like this. If you have, I consider you privileged.
Richard Leo Johnson is a photographer from Arkansas; his pictures are part of museum collections. The guitar stayed in his living room while a technique slowly took shape; only recently has he ventured into public performance. In this set he strums, tweaks, bangs, and does things I am at a loss to describe. But how he did it is unimportant – what he did is.
We first hear twelve seconds of indistinct shuffling. You wonder why it’s there, and there’s an abrupt to “Glidepath”: that’s why the first track was there – to take you by surprise. Once into “Glidepath” we hear a blues-like theme and some bottleneck, but the track doesn’t glide as much as fly. We start with theme and rhythm part played at once, which picks up a bass part, zooming downward as the lead voice creeps up. When the theme is repeated, we hear some eloquent jangles, then the key changes, we get a hyperactive strum in the stratosphere, and he theme itself changes. There’s a snatch of chordwork, it gets a tad quieter as the theme is half-resumed, the high strum comes back, and what sounds like a thousand strings in a hurry. Back to the shuffle blues as the theme returns; then Milady plays the harpsichord, and she curtseys as the blues come back. The pattern from the first half is repeated as we get a second theme, an echo from a knuckle hitting the guitar body, and a chorus of mandolins give enough tremolo for a melodrama. All this sound – all these sounds. One man, and one double-necked twelve-string. That was all from the first proper song, and there were things I failed to mention. From here on I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account; I cannot keep up with him. I bet other guitarists are thinking the same.
Things get a little quieter with “Tony Bennett”, which combines warm chords and autoharp shimmers with raps on the body, the first with a ring, the second with a fist. When Johnson enters a second theme, his fingers are slower than on “Glidepath”, but no less vigorous. Great walls of strings stand gracefully and recede; a rhythmic figure is repeated many times fast, and then it REALLY gets active. As a circular pattern is developed, it fades right away, and the original theme returns before he stops.
The songs here form a general pattern: the structure isn’t theme-solo but rather a succession of themes, most short and gone in less time than it takes to explain. It bespeaks a hyperactive mind, never wanting the interest to fade, and fueled by a desire to fill the whole room with sound. He claims Kottke and McLaughlin as influences; I also hear a bit of the Steve Tibbetts acoustic-with-muscle sound. But such borrowings are slight; Johnson is clearly his own man.
“If you play by yourself, you have to know how to play all the parts,” he says. He does this through a deft use of voices: we hear brittle harpsichord on “Mother’s Day”, austere synthesizer on “Bluefield” (it’s actually echo from an electric, played masterfully), and earthy tabla on “Get Funked”, his box-tapping showcase. As he hits the body, we hear string echo, for a tamboura drone; he also plinks the strings by the tuning pegs for a piano-string effect.
The opening to “Cicada” has a bass part funkier than “Get Funked” and has a lot of scraping noises I can’t explain. It’s also got chords and (like most of these tracks) a very rhythmic drive. “The Filing Song” varies the “Cicada” theme into a loop, ending with some snaky slides, and a gentle lush turn at the end. “Jaco Morocco” offers Johnson on a six-string for the only time here. We hear Spanish bits, call-and-response with the harpsichord sound, and some bar effects applied to the echo. It’s the closest he gets to being meditative, and it’s still more active than the typical guitarist – but, as you’ve guessed, Johnson is not the typical guitarist.
“Heart of the Beast” is mostly gentle, with knocks and splashes of autoharp. High notes twiddle as the strings are snapped, wispy lines grow sharp and end in a Byrds jangle, and a creeping bass line slinks.
“Prometheus Meets the Digital Age” is a great title; this one is real earthy with low twangs and loud thumps. At times the sound is so thick it seems a guitar school is in session, but like all the others this was recorded live. The “digital” part comes at the end, where a dozen hammered high notes create an amazing simulation of computer beeps. I’m not sure if Johnson is Prometheus, but here he has plenty of fire, and like Prometheus he shares it with us.
“Empitsu No Uta” gives us a koto, on pure high notes and dissonant pings by the tuning pegs. Near the end he contrasts this with broad slashes and percussive hits. This reminds me of John Cage’s prepared piano, in its sound and rhythm. And this is topped as well – strings are scraped to suggest birds; perhaps they are cranes flying away from the koto.
Some might dismiss this as empty technique, but I doubt it. On this disc you hear a mind and a heart, and they go deep. Johnson may have been in an Arkansas living room (or, in this case, a Brooklyn studio), but his guitar went around the world.