Thursday, June 5, 2008

The General Store -- "Mountain Rescue"

The General Store -- “Mountain Rescue” (Brewery)

It’s was hard figuring out how to begin this review. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad album. It’s quite the opposite. Tam Johnstone took a few years to follow up the first General Store album, but that’s because he clearly wanted to not just avoid the sophomore slump, he wanted to obliterate it. The problem has been the songs are so consistently good, I had a hard time figuring out where to start. Hence, this somewhat weak introductory paragraph.

“Mountain Rescue” is primarily grounded in ‘70s country rock, with Johnstone taking inspiration from Neil Young and The Eagles, among others, on a collection of perfectly rendered songs. If you thought the Cosmic Rough Riders did some great things with this sound, which they most certainly did, this is an album you must have.

What is remarkable is how effortless this all sounds, when I’m pretty sure that he spent tons of time getting it just right. The result is songs that sound like they’ve been around for forever, old friends who you just haven’t heard from in a while.

For example, take “Desert Weathered Hiway”. The song starts with a weepy pedal steel (which is somewhat redundant) from Nick Zala, who can really play that thing, and then the light strumming guitar begins. The verses are simply homilies using driving as a metaphor for life. Johnstone’s friendly voice is captivating. This all sets up a great chorus, which has a terrific melody and is augmented by more of that tasty pedal steel and gentle backing vocals. It takes an expert to build a hook like this.

That song tilts more in The Eagles’ direction, a la “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Tequila Sunrise”. The Neil Young-ish tracks are a delight. “The Wonder” is a soulful piece of country pop, with Johnstone showing off a little more range than he does on some songs. The secret of the song is the simple soft-loud juxtaposition (i.e., dynamics), though it’s really more of a contrast between the introspective verses and the stirring chorus. This is one hell of a love song.

On “Come Around”, Johnstone seems to meld the two artists I’ve referenced above. The verses are in line with “Heart Of Gold”, but the chorus rises with harmony vocals in a swell Laurel Canyon fashion.

But if you want to hear some great harmonies, skip over to “Girls From the Mall”. This is Johnstone’s splendid Beach Boys homage. It’s not a 100 percent Brian Wilson ripoff, but his inspiration is all over this track. This track also shows off a biting wit, with Johnstone slyly commenting on the emptiness of high school popularity, sung with an overly romantic enthusiasm that is similar to the narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides. Pretty and pretty funny.

All-in-all, this is simply an extremely well-crafted effort that exudes warmth. It may be even more impressive than the Store’s outstanding debut.

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