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CD REVIEW: Jason Paul Johnston - Willows Motel
By Chip Withrow - 08/10/2009 - 01:15 PM EDT

Artist: Jason Paul Johnston
Album: Willows Motel
Label: Rarebird Records
Genre: Americana rock
Sounds Like: Son Volt, Neil Young
Production/Musicianship Grade: 10/10
Overall Talent Level: 9/10
Songwriting Skills: 9/10
Performance Skill: 9/10
Best Songs: Willows Motel, Vines, Secret Prayers
CD Review: I’ve always been drawn to sepia-toned, storytelling Americana, fully realized in such albums as Neil Young’s Harvest, The Band’s Music From Big Pink, the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, and Son Volt’s Trace. And that’s why I dig Jason Paul Johnston’s Willows Motel.

“Traveling Map” is the traditional-sounding opening road tale, told in Johnston’s warm, conversational singing voice over mournful steel guitar. The title cut is a bittersweet joy, an unusual blend of violin, trumpet, and acoustic guitar.

Johnston’s songs would almost all work as guitar-and-vocal pieces. “Temptation” begins that way and turns into a choogling folk-rocker. The jangly “Lowville” features stabs of bluesy electric guitar. The backporch-friendly “She’s a Friend” is driven by banjo, the first of Chris Coole’s several picking appearances.

“Vines” is another banjo-rific tune, more freight train than rocking chair. (And it makes me want to look up the James Dickey poem “Kudzu” on which it is based.) “Vines” and the similarly paced “Anyone Inside” are good singalong tunes – “Anyone” boasts fantastic lead and backing vocals.

Piano turns “Let’s Let It Be” into a sprightly country-rock tavern number. More piano and gospel voices lift the stirring “Farther Along, ” the set’s lone cover song. “Secret Prayers” closes the album beautifully and inspirationally – it’s another song that would work solo, but it benefits from atmospheric washes of guitar and keyboard.

Jason Paul Johnston’s Willows Motel is filled with songs to care about, acoustic in nature yet adorned with crisp musicianship.

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