Hamline Oracle, Hamline University - St. Paul, MN
April 25, 1975
New Michael Johnson album receives favorable response
For decades the real crime in the music world was the lack of credit given to composers for the music that big stars ripped off from them. Whether it be Frank Sinatra or the local rock band, musicians have often made it big by theft. With the last ten years this situation has been reversed, with the composer often also acting as performer. With this change, we have been subjected to the likes of such mediocre performers (but excellent composers) as Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson Browne. Their sole claim to fame is often their unique songs.
If unique is what you seek, may I turn your sights to a performer who revolts against this trend, Michael Johnson. Based in the Twin Cities, Johnson has appeared at Hamline twice in the last two years to enthusiastic crowds.
Johnson's new album, For All You Mad Musicians is a collection of relatively unknown songs, all with the Johnson trademark in arrangement and vocals. His style is identifiable through his beautiful vocals (both solo and with Mark Henley) and with his fine guitar work which shows his classical training.
With all these assets, Johnson's basic fault is his lack of ability to compose. It must be mentioned that Johnson's problem is not lack of creative talent. His arrangements of these songs is exciting, even with the oft-recorded "Here Comes the Sun" by George Harrison. His talent lies in arrangement, not in composing. This failing is the one reason he is not recording for a major record company (he was dropped from Atco after his first album in their big recessionary cutback) and consequently is not a nationally recognized "star."
The obstacle to his widespread fame lies with the audiences (and the record companies, or is it vice versa?) who demand their sacred originality over basic quality. Johnson's new album, much like his first, has the quality that the performer can be proud of and the listener can enjoy.
Like the first album, There Is a Breeze, the new album is a compatible mixture of varying songs. Gone are the orchestras and frills. Johnson uses only himself on the vocal and guitar work with minor assistance from a banjo player, one piano (on one cut each) and his friend Mark Henley to back up on a couple tunes. One low point in the album is a song that Johnson wrote, "Cain's Blood", but that is my personal taste. Highlights, which by far outweigh the former, include John Martyn's "May You Never". Also in this category are the two Crow Johnson songs, "The Glory" and an especially moving number, "The Gypsy in the Photograph."
Overall the album is as good as the previous effort, neither being perfect. The thing that makes Johnson so enjoyable is the overall mood. It is mellow yet emotional, as he projects the feelings that many times the original writer seems to have missed.
Some day Michael Johnson will be able to transcend the critics, experts, and the self-proclaimed purists who block his road to success among the general public. Until that time his fans will have to continue to answer to the questions of "Michael Johnson?"
Come For To Sing published by The Old Town School of Folk Music - Chicago
By Emily Friedman
Chicago expatriate Michael Johnson, a guitarist, singer, and songwriter of the first order, has produced a brilliant second album. His first record had an enormous amount of production (sidemen, flugelhorns, and the like) on it, and thus it was a real pleasure to play this record and find that all of the production on it consisted of a piano (on one cut), a banjo (on one cut), and Rockford, IL, folksinger Mark Henley on vocals and/or guitar on four cuts. These adornments add texture and interest in a highly tasteful way, and the entire effort allows Johnson to shine as a singer and guitarist, which is what folk recordings ought to be about.
And does he ever shine! From Chicago singer Al Day's "The Good Life" to John Martyn's memorable "May You Never" to Tom Rapp's insightful "Love and Sex" to a beautiful version of "Here Comes the Sun", this album is a work of art. Johnson's fluid, jazz-influenced guitar work is flawless and his smooth, clear voice is in perfect form. Several of these songs ought to be inscribed on walls for everyone to read: "Love and Sex" advises that "Love will get you through times of no sex/Better than sex will get you through times of no love," while "May You Never" expresses a hope that "...you never lose your temper/When you get in a barroom fight/May you never lose your woman overnight." This record is for all you mad musicians--and for everyone else.
By Pete Dwyer
For All You Mad Musicians is Michael Johnson's second album. His first, There Is a Breeze on Atco, is now out of print by choice of the record label. There was a good bit of rumor and misunderstanding surrounding the episode. On one hand the album could hardly be expected to do very well with the minimal promotion it was given upon release, but on the other hand the label let it go out of print because it didn't sell well. There followed a negotiation of sorts and Johnson's contract with Atco, which called for another album, was dissolved with both parties in agreement, depending on who you talk to. At any rate, it was generally assumed that Johnson had been dropped by the label and his career as a recording artist was on the slide.
However, to avoid the problems of working with a major label, Johnson started his own, Sanskrit Records, which is handled by his manager's agency, Projects IV. For All You Mad Musicians is the only album in the Sanskrit catalogue, but at least that way it gets all of the promotion effort. After two months the record is starting to get sales action, spurred by airplay on the progressive FM stations and a recent series of concerts at the Guthrie, three of which were sold out.
Though For All You Mad Musicians is stronger than Johnson's first album, it is not an entirely successful recording. It suffers from thin arrangements, predominantly solo guitar and voice. The difficulty is making the folk material he works with compelling with only melody and/or lyrics. His only assistance is Herb Pilhofer on piano for "Walk Me Round Your Garden", Tab Leven on banjo for "The Gypsy In The Photograph", and Mark Henley, guitar on "Gypsy", "The Glory" and "Here Comes The Sun". The resulting production leaves most of the songs sounding the same on first hearing
The superficial similarities begin to fade after repeated listening and certain cuts dominate. The strongest cut is "May You Never", written by John Martyn, which along with "Here Comes The Sun", written by George Harrison, are the only two songs on the album that were not written by Johnson or his friends. The most interesting song, aside from airplay potential, is "The Gypsy In The Photograph", which was written by Crow Johnson, Michael's sister-in-law. She also write "The Glory", and her husband (Michael's brother), Paul Johnson, wrote "Take My Body Home". Dick Pinney wrote "Walk Me Round Your Garden", the song from which the album title is taken.
Most of the songs contain a sentimentality which is only the more obvious because of the weak arrangements. However, while most of the songs are flawed, they have great promise as far as lyrics are concerned. With a bit of cliche editing and stronger arrangements, For All You Mad Musicians might have been Johnson's next album, for which is planning more extensive acoustic and vocal arrangements.
The Minnesota Daily
By Gary Fredrickson
Quite a few people have played Michael Johnson's There Is a Breeze enough times to go through two copies of it. Recorded a couple of years ago in New York and Toronto, it is an outstanding album of sensitive and moving tracks like "Old Folks" and Jackson Browne's "My Opening Farewell", up tempo movers such as "In Your Eyes" and "See You Soon" and the beautiful solo classical guitar piece "Study in E Minor".
Johnson's new album, For All You Mad Musicians, is quite a departure from Breeze. Save for a bit of vocal help and a little extra guitar or piano, this is a solo album. The use of horns, strings, and even a harp on Breeze contrasted with Johnson's letter perfect acoustical numbers and made it so memorable. Musicians suffers from a lack of that diversity. It still displays the beautiful and expressive guitar work and vocal control which make for a touching delivery, but a certain lack of intensity holds the whole thing back.
Side one begins with "Troubled For You", a perfect opener--straight forward and setting the tone of Johnson's style. "Cain's Blood" is one of the better tracks on the album. Michael's lyrics explore the dichotomy of existence, contrasting the attributes of Cain and Abel. But Tom Rapp's "Love and Sex" begins with a nice lyric about our failure to touch and share and drifts into cliches and runs out of steam. "The Good Life" suffers from an easy loose style which makes it sound more like a throwaway than part of an album. With "Gypsy in the Photograph" Johnson weaves a haunting picture of a half awakened memory of mystery and rumor about a mother known only through pictures found in an old trunk.
Between "May You Never" and "Here Comes the Sun" on the other side, Johnson threatens to drift right off the turntable. "May You Never" is a beautiful lyric which holds the attention but the next four tracks are sunk in the low key style which plagues the album. Closing with a moderate version of "Sun", featuring outstanding guitar work by Johnson and Mark Henley, the vocal shows a bit more spark but not as much as befits the tune.
In concert Johnson's introspective numbers come through more strongly and he can still toss off a moving uptempo number without losing any feeling. A number of the quieter pieces on Musicians will fare better in person. The two shows at the Guthrie Sunday are sold out but they've added a performance the following week.