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Jack Johnson is Plugged In, Are You?

By Staff | Mar 11, 2008

I have an unabashed love for the so-called ‘surf singers,’ Mellow music, simply put, makes me happy. This is not to be confused with pop musicians (see Matchbox Twenty or Plain White T’s) releasing ever-so-soft ballads that have less edge than a sphere.

But with the ocean-boys you are automatically forgoing the conclusion that they sold out by making acoustic music, it is just the sound that best reflects their lifestyle. It seems like a stretch sometimes, and it can be. For a great example of success and  releasing something pleasant and soft, see Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack for “Into the Wild.”

Jack Johnson, Matt Costa and the Beta Band can all bring the calm like theirs no tomorrow. They are palatable even when at their sappiest, though Johnson’s popularity — check his plays and friends on Myspace — makes it a bit harder to enjoy his tunes when you hear them so frequently (see “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley). But they have all made a living on listeners closing their eyes and imagining the waves and sand.

Johnson’s response to his popularity— ‘Wake up! Let’s talk about the war in Iraq.’ It’s a jarring departure in content, though not always sound — most of the album is done on an electric guitar, but still achieves a similar groove —for the love-song-champion of the decade.

Spurring success is simply par for the course for some of the greatest artists: Radiohead, Kurt Cobain, Dave Chappelle, Earnest Hemingway.

But “Sleep Through the Static” doesn’t sound like someone who is trying to derail their career but someone who feels compelled to pontificate a bit, Bono style, because he has an attentive audience that needs information. But don’t let that scare you away.

We lament these people who don’t just play music, but preach. But wasn’t U2 right about Apartheid? Don’t we generally consider that a pretty bad thing now?

Now, at this point you’re thinking … hey smart guy, what about the freakin’ songs? Therein lies the problem. None are revolutionary sounding, its just subtle differences that add up. Don’t expect any distortion, fast tempos or revolutionary sounds. It all sounds strangely familiar.

From the onset of “All at Once,” you know this is a different beast. It is sad and not in the hopeful “If I Could”-style off “In Between Dreams”. It sounds surprisingly serious … because it is. The title track, “Sleep Through the Static,” can be just as jarring for those fans who last satiated themselves with the “Curious George Soundtrack.” With words like “Mind your manners/wave your banners” and “Who needs please when we’ve got guns?/ Who needs keys when we’ve got clubs?/Who needs peace when we’ve gone above/ But beyond where we should have gone.”

Even “Angel,” an appropriate wedding song I’ve been told, is a bit sadly-tuned for a love song. The lyrics are sweat, but with a bittersweet tone. The tremolo start of “They Don’t Do They” camoflauges the call-the-youth-to-arms message. Even the happiest sounding song, “Monsoon,” balances the bouncing piano licks with words of longing and escape.

“Sleep Through the Static” gets credit for being recorded with 100 percent solar energy too. But in the end, all we care about is the music. And it’s good, great even, as long as you can except that surf-singers have the right to have an opinion worth sharing.

Contact Brad at btennant@graffitiwv.com