March 3, 2005

Jack Johnson

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When a friend told me last year that she preferred to study while listening to Jack Johnson, I immediately construed that to mean Jack Johnson’s music was boring. I had heard many of his songs and had even seen him in concert, so to be fair, my interpretation was not prejudicial.

Johnson’s popularity had soared with the singer/songwriter boom of the past few years, yet it seemed to me that he lacked the virtuosity and musicality of John Mayer, the introspection of Elliott Smith and the soul of Ben Harper. However, with In Between Dreams, his third full-length album, Johnson proves that his music has an intangible quality, which exists due to the absence of the bells and whistles that have come to define mainstream music.

Johnson takes his usual stripped-down approach, opting for only bass, drums and guitar on the majority of the tracks. The Oahu native is backed by the same band he used on his previous two efforts with guest instrumentalist Zach Gill adding piano on two of the numbers and accordion on another.

The album begins on a high note with “Better Together.” Its Hawaiian-influenced guitar rhythm leaves the listener yearning for a ukulele to fully authenticate the tropical experience. Johnson’s work on this album surpasses his previous efforts since the vocals are exquisite and manage to completely compensate for what would otherwise be simplistic.

Jack Johnson’s vocal prowess is readily apparent on “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” the album’s first single. Though it features the predictable Jack Johnson syncopated guitar strum and a bland quarter-note piano accompaniment, the chorus of the song is belted out in a style uncharacteristic of Johnson, directly contrasting with much of his previous semi-monotonous work.

Unsurprisingly, the lyrical content on In Between Dreams is superb, as Johnson manages to affirm a side of his song craft that I had never doubted. Clearly singing about a breakup in “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” he pipes, “Maybe you’ve been through this before/ But it’s my first time so please ignore/ The next few lines because they’re directed at you.” Embracing the minimalism displayed in other aspects of his music, Johnson is able to be brutally honest and original without having to open up a dictionary.

In Between Dreams is by no means perfect. The middle of the album gets slow but, the end of the album picks up with more melodic numbers that are redeeming, assuming the listener is still awake. On the whole, In Between Dreams is more of a solid record than a mixed bag. At its best, it would distract even the most avid studier. Jack Johnson is on the road to better things, and this is a showing of marked improvement.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Contributor