Sunny Sounds with Just the Right Amount of Black Cloud
Even though he spent most of his youth in gray Glasgow, Johnathan Rice has had a sun-kissed career. He left his Virginia home at 18 to make the pilgrimage to New York City in search of the great American recording contract, a journey that for many ends with their tail between their legs and just enough money for a bus ticket home. But just before retiring off to University with his friends, this velvet-voiced crooner started landing gigs: regular appearances at The Living Room, a movie role in Walk The Line playing young Roy Orbison and ultimately, the golden ticket: a record contract with Warner/Reprise the label on which he released his first record in 2004. Now 30, Rice has written, produced and collaborated (he is a co-member of Jennie and Johnny with girlfriend and Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Watson) his way out to Laurel Canyon, where he readies himself to tour on his latest solo album Good Graces.
Rice wrote the record during a month’s stay in his friend Jessie Harris’s Manhattan apartment, but Good Graces sounds like California: sunny and dreamy and stoned. On “Aculpulco Gold,” he sings about the peace of smoking weed but can’t leave the sweetness too potent: “I coulda been a banker like my Dad / Or a speed freak like my brother.” “My Heart Belongs” is, perhaps, a testament to his current love. The title track is a celebration of Rice’s good fortune for being forgiven for something, as he repeats “I’m forgiven, I’m forgiven and it feels so good” through bright acoustic guitar and organ swells.
Rice acted as the main producer and writer for this record, a job he had help with in the past: Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes produced 2005’s Trouble Is Real. He did have some assistance for the instrumentation, enlisting friends like Jason Boesel on drums and Dawes’ Wiley Gelber on bass. The backing vocal tracks on this album, sung by Jenny Lewis, The Watson Twins and Z Berg are evocative of ’60s girl groups and indie pop.
Good Graces may feel light, but it isn’t always swimming in shallow surf. Rice can be witty, sardonic lyricist and doesn’t hide from depth or truth. Tracks like Lou Rider, Soldier and the single-sounding “Nowhere At The Speed Of Light” make it sound like the West Coast scene is entering another golden era, but it’s nice to hear that Rice still retains some of the cool bitterness of the hard East that he has worn on his sleeves on previous recordings like Trouble Is Real or Further North. Rice is still on his pilgrimage and the people and places that surround him seem to define his sound as he travels on. Enjoy the weather on Good Graces but keep your umbrella on you. Johnathan Rice is a talented producer and writer and there’s no telling what the forecast will be.