Reclinerland – S/T

Mike Johnson’s voice strains at each note, often wobbling flat or pinching a little sharp. It’s a voice that sounds a little rusty from neglect. Yet, somehow it always finds its mark, and it grows on you, like the Little Engine that Could. In his musical vehicle’s Reclinerland’s self-titled release, his guilelessly expressive singing supported by careful arrangements recreates a sonic interpretation of that Little Engine. Each song begins in sympathetic disarray, crawling for composure, too weak to stand. By song’s end, the transformation is nothing if not miraculous. Gorgeous strings, organ, and guitars appear as if out of the ether, and Johnson’s voice, now strengthened and more comfortable with itself, finishes in triumph.
The affect of Johnson’s voice is to lay his words out unclothed, front and center. They come out clear and strong (although not always prettily so), revealing an intelligent, sly musician cataloguing his experiences as a young man. At times his lyrics direct and open, cleverly turning phrases such as “Maybe I’m jealous, windows and bridges, they get to walked all over and be looked through by you” in “Miss Haze.” Other times, they’re circularly bashful and confusing, as in “Did you ever dream about someone’s house, six blocks away and still nervous?” from “As Paranoid As I Am.” But no matter how confusing his choice of words may be, his voice cracks and whines with such ardency that you have no choice but to take his lyrics seriously, even such phrases as “Shopping carts rusting on the East River long for quiet death,” in “Pound Coins.” And since he’s peppered his lyrics with so many references from film (Orson Welles, Ridley Scott), literature (F. Scott Fitzgerald), and home decorating (douve), you can’t be convinced that those confusing lines are not still more references to works that you’re unfamiliar with. Part of the pleasure of reviewing has been trying to decide which parts of his lyrics are genuine and which parts are written in jest. His voice never hints.
In arranging the instruments around his lyrics, Johnson deftly draws upon his hybrid background of pop and classical music. With support from fellow Reclinerland collaborators Pat Gamble and Bob Martin and a gaggle of other assorted musicians (including a string quartet), Johnson roams across a blurred landscape of classically styled pop, rock, and folk music. In “Meet Me Later in the File Room,” Johnson’s voice clings tenaciously to a stately string quartet arrangement. Some songs, such as “Miss Haze” and “19th Century Boy,” overlay classically derived soaring harmonies and tightly controlled dynamics onto brooding pop pieces. “Miss Haze” begins simply with plucked acoustic guitar chords accompanying his voice and then opens out in full with ghostly organ and sputtering electric guitar. In songs like “Eight (Edit),” Johnson and company bang out power pop which often bear faint resemblance to early Cure. He’s a lullaby singer in the hushed beauty of “Vegas Remains” and folksy and intimate “Pound Coins,” employing only the aid of a warbling acoustic guitar.
Reclinerland is a quirkily endearing listen. Unlike several of the songwriters he compares to, such as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, Johnson doesn’t offer many hooks that a listener can dig into. In some ways, his song structure resembles the looser work of Jeff Buckley and the atmospheric sounds of The Cure. For those with a little patience, this unassuming CD is filled with enough surprises and unexpected beauty to repay that patience in full.