This is a review of "s/t" recorded by Jonny Berliner. The review was written by Sam Saunders in 2002.
This is a charming and musically accomplished collection. Jonny Berliner has a great voice and some stylish sidemen. There's a light jazz feel and a wide range of songs. At one end, there's a Jim Croce approach to wry observation and story telling. At the other there's a Van Morrison take on stream of consciousness groove. A more realistic comparison would say that it's like fellow Leeds 6 intelligentsia Brass Moustache on a bigger scale with less of an edge. The core is Jonny Berliner on voice and guitar, John Allen drums and Robin Grey bass. Flute, keyboards, alto sax and French horn add class. There's plenty of assured flute. I would have liked more sax and fewer of the lounge jazz pastiche items (black widow blues is a culprit here). 'Wedding song' at track 4 is a delightful tune. 'Coinflipper' that follows wanders off into vaguely Jimmy Webb territory with slightly less sense of direction. 'Happy song' puts together some standard components with nice bass and percussion but gets buried in too many words. 'Ride' has a beautiful guitar sound, some eerie organ noises and a convincing harmonic structure. The CD finishes on the cheerful nonsense of 'Something I didn't know' having started with the chilled out and very relaxing 'Take your time, Take it easy'.
There are some problems. The variety of styles is distracting rather than impressive, and I grumpily guess that Jonny is not committed to any of them. The lyrics are not as efficiently intelligent as the playing. Some are downright clumsy and I struggled to get much sense from some of them. In general it's a case of over writing. Too many words are lined up against the nicely understated and economical instrumentation. 'A chance encounter', a beautiful little song with gloriously open-ended guitar, gets badly derailed by self-indulgent lyrics that will have to be re-written at some point. For example:
"I ran away with a blackened eye and a question on my mind:
'Could I still believe in the intrinsic good of humankind?'
If its all amusin', even the abusin', well then,
Well then you're fine ."
goes way beyond intellectual self-deprecation and lands smack in the middle of excruciating. Especially when the last line is delivered in a mocking version of the unwashed East Enders accent that thumped him in the first place.
Never mind. This is great live music for social occasions. The Wardrobe and the HiFi club are where you'd expect to hear it. It's not sit up and drool concert stuff, but it rings changes and it's convincingly expert. Only your serious jazz buff or your intense Bonie Prince Billy fan is going to take exception. It isn't going to change your life, but it will decorate a dull corner of it. Give it a try.