It’s impossible to write more or less anything about Caleb Johnson without at least mentioning American Idol once. Personally, I’m not a fan of all the Idol competitions at all. Why? Well, firstly, I think it’s the wrong way to go as it’s a shortcut to fame. Sure, you get to perform in front of big crowds and you get a whole lot of exposure for sure. But what you don’t get is experience. You get experience from rehearsing with your band, playing clubs, cutting demos – that’s how you learn your craft and find your identity as a musician, not by performing covers chosen by a TV show. You also end up a puppet for Idol even if you win. Especially if you win. They tell you what songs to play, they force you sing stuff you dislike, they style you to look they way they want – and when you’ve won, you have to record an album with songs written and chosen by Idol. All in all, they don’t want someone original or longevity – they want someone mainstream that can make them a fast buck.
Winners like Caleb and Erik Grönwall (H.E.A.T.) have both talked about their dislike for their debut (solo) albums as they couldn’t stand by them at all. On the other hand, things have turned out really well for the both of them so maybe there are some good things about Idol after all and what they do learn there is to tackle big crowds, something that partly helped him getting the gig with Trans Siberian Orchestra and the Meat Loaf show, so there you go. I hardly ever watch Idol myself but my wife does and the first time I came across Caleb Johnson was when my wife shouted to me from behind the bedroom TV: “Jompa, come here. You HAVE to listen to this guy!!!”. So I did and was floored by the wink of an eye. Yes, I did watch that whole season of Idol – because of Caleb. He had the whole package – the incredible voice, the looks, charisma and confidence enough to sell. The guy is without a doubt born for the stage. So now when Johnson has released his “real” debut album, it’s with huge anticipation I push play.
Johnson and his cohorts opens the album with “Holding On”, a mid-paced, big-grooved Classic Rock tune fueled with big Southern Rock influences where the Hammond organ meets gritty guitars in a brilliant symbiosis. It’s raunchy yet soulful and the female backing vocals gives it an almost gospely touch. The big refrain hints a Melodic Rock influence as well and the big catchiness makes it hard to resist. A great opener. Rival Sons was the first thing on mind when second single “Solid Gold” came on and there’s a good reason to that. The tune is written by Rival Sons lead singer Jay Buchanan and Blair Daily. It’s a big, fat, punchy Classic Rock groover with a 70’s smell that holds a moody edge. Blues-influenced and with a big live-feel, the tune throws a mighty, butt-kicking refrain at us, a refrain that sticks from go without being the least radio-friendly. Gotta love it!
A big chunky bass-line and a stompy rhythm – slightly funky – gets “Sugar” off its feet with a good dose of in-your-face attitude. It’s the latest single and even though it’s not especially mainstream, the refrain is distinct and effective enough to result in rocking the airwaves – with a little luck. Killer stuff. The album’s leading single “Born And Raised” takes us back to a time where the 60’s passed the border to the 70’s. Black Crowes comes to mind in this chunky, swinging groover and the tune sports a striking refrain where the female backing vocals even brings the catchiness to another level. That this didn’t become a huge hit is beyond me – how brilliant. “Better Off Alone” is an awesome soul-fueled, 70’s sounding half-ballad where Southern Rock meets gospel on an infectious groove – which brings us in to another ballad, the soul-meets-blues and gospel influenced “Blind”. It’s grandiose yet stripped with a big mid 70’s feel and a refrain that’s so emotional it almost hurts. Splendid!
The Rolling Stones asks The Black Crowes for a dance at a party thrown by Kid Rock when “Hanging With The band” brings up a bad-ass groove. It’s a slower paced and chunky rocker with an added Soul injection that makes for a massive swing and and a rhythm so stompy it’d make you dance in your sleep. I’d love to be in the crowd when this shows up. “Ride With The Devil” is darker in atmosphere and the heaviest track on the record. It’s ballsy and kicking with a striking rhythm that goes right for the throat with some rough and gritty guitars. The refrain is a real gut-puncher as well. “It’s Not The End” is a soul-creamed and Southern Rock laden power ballad that holds a major 70’s sound but also some late 80’s laden melody-lines and the chorus sports so many hooks it’s unfair to other power ballads. But fear not, this is no cheese-fest, this ballad is powerful – and great! As a closer we get an acoustic version of “Hanging With The Band” Despite the stripped outcome, it swings like crazy and it’s more gospel-laden than the electric version. Love it.
After listening through this record, I’m glad Johnson got his break even though it came through American Idol – and I feel great about watching the show that season. The guy is an amazing singer, his band is tighter than tight and they’re all top-notch musicians. Caleb’s brand of meaty, raunchy and groovy Classic Rock – with scents of Hard Rock and Southern Rock – works like a charm on record but is made for the stage. This is live music deluxe and I would love to catch this act live sometime (hello Sweden Rock). When Caleb finally is given the chance to prove himself for real, playing his own music the way he wants it, it turns out great and it’s easy to spot the passion, heart and soul of it. The guy really should be huge with this record but if he keeps up the high quality song writing and his love for his music, his big break will come sooner than later. Don’t miss.
1. Holding On
2. Solid Gold
4. Born And Raised
5. Better Off Alone
7. Hanging With The Band
8. Ride With The Devil
9. It’s Not The End
10. Hanging With The Band (Acoustic)