Everyone has seminal albums of their youth. One of mine was the 1983 gem Soul Mining from British post-punk, new-wave band The The, cited by The Rock Rough Guide as "a vastly influential milestone of '80s electronic music." So it's of great personal interest that The The's braintrust and well-known perfectionist Matt Johnson has just released his first album of original material in seven years. (His previous releases were 1995's Hanky Panky, an album of Hank Williams covers, and 1993's Dusk.)
Johnson has worked with more than 300 musicians over his 21-year career, including Jools Holland, Neneh Cherry, Sinead O'Connor and Johnny Marr. His lineup this time out is an unusual one. But the combination of guitarist Eric Schermerhorn (of Iggy Pop's band), drummer Earl Harvin (MC900 Foot Jesus) and bassist Spencer Campbell (Kenny Rogers!) serves Johnson's atmospheric, intense and melodic rock surprisingly well, for the most part.
The album incorporates both ominous and squealing guitars on such brooding tracks as BoilingPoint, DieselBreeze, WeatherBelle and GlobalEyes (the latter featuring backup vocals from Lloyd Cole) and straight-up, acoustic instruments on the poppier ShrunkenMan, TheWhisperers, SoulCatcher, DecemberSunlight and PhantomWalls. Now a Englishman living in New York City's Chinatown, Johnson seems to have absorbed the American sensibility about rock music, particularly on the harder-rocking SwineFever, VoidyNumbness and SaltWater, without watering down his own British bite. "My life is halfway through and I still haven't done what I'm here to do," he sings on SoulCatcher. In fact, there would have been an earlier The The album except that the "extreme and experimental" disc Gun Sluts -- recorded with the NakedSelf lineup in 1997 -- never saw the light of day after Johnson's previous label refused to release it.
His next project is reported to be an album of Robert Johnson songs, and he also has plans for a stripped-down, small-venue tour. Let's hope he makes it to Toronto. So far, there is no indication that will happen.
-- Jane Stevenson