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The John Henrys
[True North (2010)]
White Linen is the third album from Canadian alt-country/AAA rockers The John Henrys.
Comparisons to The Band are both inevitable and immediately apparent. The John Henrys play genre-spanning rock with a healthy dose of southern American twang, but they mostly leave the countryfried accents to their southern neighbors. Although they’re cleaner than some other northern alt-country acts like their New York contemporaries The Old 97s, there’s still a good rocking edge to the music and Rey Sabatin’s lead vocals—despite the seven months spent crafting the album, things don’t come off as overly polished.
The John Henrys also admit their heavy Tom Petty influence, which is a fortunate and refreshing bit of honesty when the record starts with a track like “Little One,” a song that could easily be a (forgive me) refugee from any mid-career Tom Petty record. The Guitars shimmer, the lead vocals are nasally but supported by choir-like male harmonies, and the chorus hits straight to the heart.
“Piece of Mind” is another standout track on the album and showcases two of the band’s most admirable characteristics: their impeccable play skill and their restraint. The guitar solo on this song is one of the most amazing moments on the record, though it lasts a mere 7 seconds. The vocals never soar here but have an amazing intensity nonetheless.
The band claims to have taken a cue from vinyl production, splitting the 11-track album into two parts. The second half has a heavier country influence, but the flavor of the music is fairly uniform throughout. “Stars Align” might be on the second side, for instance, but sounds exactly like something They Might Be Giants could have written. They’re generally better when they stick to the pop/alt rock and classic country side of their sound instead of modern country—“Hit the Floor” and “Empty Pockets,” for instance, sound forced.
The title track—a prairie bank robbery story—straddles the two sides, and owes the biggest debt to The Band, right down to the Rick Danko-like vocals. The upright piano sounds like it was borrowed from Music From Big Pink. A mandolin finally pops up about halfway through the song, and Steve Tarone’s organ cradles the arrangement. It’s a well-crafted track that can easily slide into any radio playlist or iPod mix.
The arrangements and tunes here can be a bit obvious or predictable, but it’s better to just call them “straightforward,” because after all The John Henrys make no false claim of blazing new trails or creating particularly adventurous music. Fan of alt-country will not be disappointed, and this album could easily win a few converts to the genre from those who prefer more pop-rock oriented material. Overall, an excellent and enjoyable listen.
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