Reviews: City Hotel & Josephine Johnson

City Hotel - Don’t Go To the Porch (2017)

Something felt right about revisiting City Hotel’s excellent 2017 release Don’t Go To The Porch, which is an album that every bluegrass fan should own. This group of stellar local musicians has become known throughout Savannah over several years as being standard bearers for the bluegrass tradition in our area. They even perform live around a single microphone, as the greats have always done.

Sometimes, in my opinion, bluegrass doesn’t translate very well to the recorded medium. Not in this case, though. This is an album full of clarity and beautiful arrangements, and it’s one that brings a new energy and vibe to the storied genre. A song like “Happier Not Knowing” is a great example of the band at their best—all of the parts and instruments are tastefully arranged and the intro lick is compelling enough to draw you in. It would be very easy to overplay and overproduce a song like this, which in its purest form would work easily as a pop song, but the band resists this urge and plays it straight.

Like “Happier,” the rest of the album finds the band ego-less and fully aware of their role. That’s the marking of a great band in any genre, but especially in bluegrass where essentially every instrument is playing a percussive role as well as a melodic run. Aaron Zimmer, Cory Chambers, Jay Rudd, and Anthony Teixeira are quite obviously aware here that they’re better together, and that one member isn’t the central focus.

“Jump” is another great example, especially being a more standard bluegrass number in terms of pulse and rhythm. The storytelling shines here, as does the brilliantly understated upright bassline that thumps through the song and provides the anchor. The harmonies are tight, the mandolin solo is musical (not unlike the solos of legends like Sam Bush), and it further concretes the fact that this is simply a wonderfully solid bluegrass record made right here in Savannah.

Josephine Johnson - The Spark (2018)

From the second the drums come in on “Reclaiming My Time,” Josephine Johnson already makes The Spark’s presence known. Recorded in San Francisco with the legendary John Vanderslice, Johnson employs organic drums, wurlitzer, tasteful electric guitars, and a general sonic beauty to help give a platform for her stunning lyricism and passionate vocals.

“Tuesday Evening” is a standout here for the way it weaves between minor and major. It’s the kind of songwriting you don’t see often anymore. The record only gets better from there, with title track “The Spark” also standing out for its soulfulness (and the just plain wonderful Hammond organ submerged in reverb). The drums on this one are dry and tight, just as they should be. The groove just spills over into everything on this one, with Johnson’s vocals sounding as intimate as the lyrics. It’s just plain groovy.

All in all, this is a record that pop fans, rock fans, soul music fans, and just music fans in general will love. Don’t miss Johnson as a live performer either, as she’s a truly captivating singer and writer who should be a much bigger name around these parts.

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