Release Date: Jan 12, 2010
Record label: Bar None
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative, Country
Freedy Johnston seemingly went into hiding after 2001's Right Between the Promises, playing the occasional live gig, releasing an archival live disc, and putting together a collection of old four-track demos, but otherwise staying out of sight. Rain on the City marks his first collection of new songs since his tenure with the majors came to an end early in the decade, and while Right Between the Promises sometimes sounded like Johnston was forcing the cheerfulness after 1999's dour and downbeat Blue Days Black Nights, Rain on the City strikes a more comfortable balance between the bright and blue sides of Johnston's musical personality, and in terms of getting a sound that suits his songs, this is his most effective set since This Perfect World in 1994. Producer Richard McLaurin knows when to let the performances stay spare on "Lonely Penny" and "The Kind of Love We're In," and he also knows when and how to let Johnston rock, and when the guitars and drums kick in on "Don't Fall in Love with a Lonely Girl," the effect is nothing less than thrilling.
Though Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World was one of the best CDs of the ’90s, the ”Bad Reputation” guy has barely maintained any rep lately. (His last disc of new songs was in 2001.) Johnston had been tinkering with Rain on the City for years, yet it doesn’t betray any fussiness: Character studies don’t get more minimalist than ”Lonely Penny,” a sonnet to a coin on the sidewalk, or ”The Kind of Love We’re In,” a deceptively sunny bossa nova about a love’s impending failure. Your gratitude for his economical writing may overcome your wonderment over why something so modest took so long.
The good news is that Freedy’s back, a return to the scene of one the ‘90s’ most reliable songwriters. There really is no bad news here, unless you had hopes that, in the nearly nine-year (!) wait since Johnston’s last record, he would have stored up a set of mindblowing tunes that could stack up against his best records. Rain on the City doesn’t quite accomplish that feat, but it won’t be a disappointment to fans of smart singer-songwriter fare and certainly not to his ardent admirers who were wiggling about this record months before its release.
Breakthrough and backlash: with some exceptions, the former eventually begets the latter, no matter how wrongly deserved. The transition is part of the natural balance of things, and many artists unable to circumvent and survive the inevitable have been left behind, wondering what went wrong. Freedy Johnston's no stranger to this familiar story. His much-lauded second album, 1992's Can You Fly, put him on the radar just as grunge was marginalizing singer-songwriters, and the conspicuous choice of Butch Vig as producer of his 1994 follow-up This Perfect World made the dialectic that much more apparent and severe.
Lots of independent artists have had unusual brushes with mainstream success, but none of them has a story as strange as that of Freedy Johnston. After releasing Can You Fly, an album that was hailed as “perfect” by Robert Christgau and eventually cited in Tom Moon’s 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, and following it with the similarly lauded A Perfect World, Johnston still couldn’t make the transition from critically praised to commercially successful. His biggest exposure to this day remains the 1996 bowling comedy Kingpin, for which he assembled the soundtrack.