At the age of 22, Johnathan Rice has already built himself an impressive CV. Born in Scotland and raised in Virginia, he has already toured with the likes of Martha Wainwright and REM, his music has soundtracked the hip teen show of the moment, The O.C., he’s going out with Jenny Lewis of cult band Rilo Kiley and he’s due to play the role of Roy Orbison in the forthcoming biopic of Johnny Cash.
Yes, yes, but is he any good? Well, thankfully he is – very good in fact. Those who have caught Rice’s acoustic support slots may be surprised by the muscular feel of Trouble Is Real. Although there are a couple of acoustic. folky ballads on here, the overall atmosphere is that of rough-hewn Americana. Put it this way, Ryan Adams fans are going to love it.
Although he’s not part of the increasingly incestuous Saddle Creek family, there’s a definite connection with the uber-trendy label here. Bright Eyes producer Mike Moggis has produced the album, and there’s members of The Faint and Rilo Kiley to be heard on various tracks. It’s positively a surprise when Conor Oberst doesn’t pop up on backing vocals somewhere.
The album starts off with an introductory instrumental which, as the title may suggest, is a short song with strings before seguing perfectly into the proper opener, Mid November, a quiet ballad that showcases Rice’s strong vocals perfectly. This is where Rice is at his best – on fragile tracks like this one and Break So Easy, he even recalls the majesty of Van Morrison at his very best.
There are some moments that aren’t so successful though. My Mother’s Son attempts to be an epic ballad, but Mogis goes overboard on the production, leaving the string section sounding wildly overblown. It’s a shame, as a rather pretty song lurks underneath the melodrama. Lady Memphis meanwhile is trying a bit too hard to be gritty and authentic to be truly convincing.
However, the great moments far outweigh the more mediocre. Rice’s vocals are distinctive and impressive, recalling singers such as Ray LaMontagne, and the smoother, less gritty John Mayer. There are some very impressive lyrics on the album too, with City On Fire being an evocative take on New York during September 11th (Rice moved to Manhattan the day before the terrorist attacks).
If he sometimes get a bit too hokey for his own good, as on Stay At Home describing soldiers “choking on sand in some faraway land today”, he soon pulls it back with the poetry of Acrobat and the memorable lines of Beyond The Frontlines (“falling in love with some back lighted stranger/falling in love and going into the red”).
Most importantly, it’s the melodies that lurk in the memories – whether it be the upbeat rock of Kiss Me Goodbye, the delicate closing track of I Wouldn’t Miss It For The World or the beautiful ballad of Acrobat. They’re songs that will ensure that Rice should comfortably elbow his way into the crowded �young troubadour’ market. Catch him now before he becomes massive and the backlash starts.