Modern Johnny Sings: Songs In The Age of Vibe  —Songs to Develop Awareness In Listeners

Should you ever flip through my music library you’d notice that I actively avoid accumulating too many “simple” pop albums. Needless to say, my selective collecting has its reasons. At this point in time, I’d not be shocked to discover that there are a million songs containing the simple lyric “I love you”; of course, that’s just what that line is: simple. That is exactly why my probable million song estimation truly disappoints.

My gripe with the overabundance of banal love songs is not because I’m an uncompassionate robot; I’m all for love! What I’m not at all for is hearing regurgitated into our music the same clichéd lines used far too many times by far too many artists. The Beatles’ “And I Love Her” made its debut fifty-six years ago, which only demonstrates how long we’ve sang the same song. Decades of unoriginal ballads have come and gone, though throughout those years there have been pleasant exceptions, one of whom, luckily for us melomaniacs, is Theo Katzman.

On Theo Katzman’s latest album, Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe, Katzman presents, through his newly-established alter-ego “Modern Johnny”, twelve exceptional pieces. Among his fans Katzman has in the past been known for his deceptively engaging pop perfections. Acoustic masterpieces such as 2017’s “Good to Be Alone” highlight Katzman’s style. Evidently a man who’s no stranger to heartbreak he “cross dresses” his messages to fool listeners before the tune even begins. Though his method creates soothing music that fans frequently revisit, his output now is much improved, as “Modern Johnny” has both gathered the courage to try something new and through the dissection of complex topics, succeeded in doing so.

Throughout the album Theo Katzman tackles the issues, wallows in introspection and gently goes mad, and yet still allocates the time through his signature gloomy and satirical work to offer comfort and assurance in genuine values. Take note of these italicized descriptions, as those are the titles of the two pre-album 2019 EP releases and the songs within the start of Modern Johnny. I figure it’s only right to start the review accordingly.

Katzman’s first EP, Modern Johnny Tackles The Issues, fulfills its stated purpose and then some. Containing the songs “You Could Be President,” “(I Don’t Want to Be a) Billionaire,” and “Like a Woman Scorned,” Katzman treads lightly across the thin ice upon which he finds himself. “You Could Be President” sarcastically tromps over selfish mindsets that emphasize wrongful prosperity through unjust means. One could also argue that this is only a crude commentary on the soon to exit president, Donald Trump, though it’s up to the listener to decide. “(I Don’t Want to Be a) Billionaire” bluntly criticizes our capitalistic ways, shaming those who fail to see life’s extension beyond dollar signs. Speaking of shame, male listeners should come prepared for plenty in “Like A Woman Scorned.” I sincerely hope that Katzman maintains a healthy diet, as this is the moment where the icy path reaches its thinnest stretch. It’s important to understand that this song’s purpose is not to feed into “political” cravings, but rather to recognize the major flaws of the men who preceded us. A key takeaway here is to remind ourselves of our responsibility to learn from the past.

The follow-up EP, Modern Johnny Wallows in Introspection and Gently Goes Mad, contains three analytical sensations. “The Death of Us” discusses the catastrophic fate of consumerist romantics who repeatedly fail to channel their love towards one significant other. “100 Years From Now” zooms out allowing us to remember that as time carries forward, the oftentimes trivial wrongdoings and “rightdoings” of people are washed away.

To be straightforward, this song tells you that it’s okay, just keep going. Lastly, we have the incredibly haunting “What Did You Mean (When You Said Love).” This, in my strong opinion, is the magnum opus in Katzman’s catalogue. Listeners take on the role of a heartbroken romantic, feeling the seething devastation brought upon by another’s inability to grasp the magnitude of the word “love.” As of today, though I’ve heard this song upwards of one hundred times, I still crave the deep and emotional trance it puts me into each listen.

This album, released In January of 2020, contains all six EP songs and six new ones. The first new track, “Hardly Ever Rains” is the tale of a displaced depressive who’s motivated by a search for love. “Lily of Casablanca” is next. Katzman sings a tune of great admiration for his muse, glossing over Lily’s imperfections with a compound of appreciation. Next is “Best”, the upbeat story of a person whose partner has failed to pay heed to the web of emotions established before abruptly ending the relationship.

Moving into somber and delicate territory, we have “Darlin’ Don’t Be Late.” Throughout our lives, we will find ourselves in relationships with expiry dates. We attach ourselves to people with whom we are ultimately incompatible. Consequently, we are forced to confront that realization through loss (tell me about it_ed). That’s precisely what “Darlin’ Don’t Be Late” is all about: a couple whose incompatibilities have ultimately brought them down into darkness. “Fog in the Mirror” is the next fresh track on the album, though it’ll make you feel emotionally decrepit and worn out. The key line “How would you like it, to be confused by a sad romantic looking for a muse?” sums up the utter agony felt by an uninspired artist; it’s tough to feel human while you fail to hear your own song. Closing side four and simultaneously ending the album is “All’s Well That Ends Well.” This spectacular tune gently reminds us that every triumph we achieve, every ache we experience, and every little thing in between happens to form our own life story.

In terms of sound quality, I was honestly already relatively satisfied with the digital release on Apple Music (heresy, I know). Unsurprisingly, the vinyl release makes for an even stronger connection to the music. Katzman’s tenor voice has never sounded more fleshed out and lively. The low end is pungent yet pleasing. Each pluck to the bass’s strings is felt and given plentiful time to decay. Of course, this mighty and lifelike reproduction quality applies to all instruments. Something that especially stood out was that the piano sounded like a piano! You’d expect that all recorded pianos would sound reasonably close to the original instrument, but you’d be surprised. There’s a certain tactility to each key-press present in this recording— and I’m adoring it. By the way, let’s take a moment to appreciate pianist Lee Pardini’s contributions to this album; I rarely hear pop music pianists pour so much passion into the instrument.

Katzman wisely chose to split the album between two 45rpm discs. I’m certain that this adds to the album’s immersive quality. Though each LP was advertised at 140 grams, it seems that the pressing plant isn’t very consistent. The first disc came in around 134 grams while the second weighed around 152. I suppose it averages out to be just above 140 grams, but this is still a manufacturing discrepancy worth noting. Aside from the slightly mis-advertised weight, my copy was mostly quiet. Nowhere did I see any physical defects, yet I occasionally would hear light crackling in the right channel for a few revolutions. It’s not a huge disqualifier as I could count the number of times this happened on one hand, but again it’s worth mentioning. Thankfully both records had centered spindle-holes, but that’s no distraction from the fact that disc one was ever so slightly warped. Aside from the generally decent pressing quality, the jacket is a great piece of eye candy. The splendid cover photo of Theo bowing his guitar is nice to see on this gatefold jacket. Lyrics and credits can be found on the inner parts of the gatefold. I recommend you read them as you listen, it’ll allow you to gain further understanding of the message. Unfortunately, the records are stored in generic paper sleeves, but that’s nothing you can’t fix for a small price. Overall, aside from some hiccups with record weigh and very occasional surface noise I’d say the physical product was to my liking.

As mentioned in the beginning of this review, I make a point of intentionally collecting meaningful music. It’s an absolute joy to find yourself drawing different conclusions about your music as time goes by, and that quite simply that cannot be done with unoriginal and uninventive clone songs. I intend to hold dearly onto this album as it’s deserving of such care. I can’t wait to one day play Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe for my children.

(Nathan Zeller is a music-adoring Beatles fanatic from the chilling lands of Western Canada. Born with a piano teacher for a father, and a teacher at a music-oriented elementary school for a mother, you could say he didn’t choose this life, rather it chose him. Currently, he finds himself desperately trying to make room for vinyl in his life during online school. It’s a tough battle, but it’s one worth fighting. Follow Nathan on Instagram @nathanmzeller)

Chemguy's picture

Listening online right now and digging it. 45 rpm!...I'm in!

Nathan Zeller's picture

It's always nice to know that somebody out there is finding joy in the music I share. I'm sure Theo's grateful for it too, after all with COVID-19 he's not able to tour like before.

Tom L's picture

I can appreciate a song or so at a time, but then I overdose on the breathy falsetto vocals. It all seems just a bit too precious for my blood.