As I noted in my review of her previous album, Johnstone is better known as a songwriter than a performer in her own right, her work having been covered by many of Americana’s great and good. As such, Living Room, often stripped to basics with minimal arrangements (the sleeve is just a black and white photo of her and a piano), might be seen more as demos for potential covers by artists looking to add some extra class to their albums than a spotlight for Johnstone herself, but that would be to overlook the quality she brings to her own material.
It opens simply with ‘Is There Nothing’, just voice, piano and Bob Liepman’s cello unveiling the end of a long relationship as she watches her partner walk out of the door to be with his new lover, the tune co-composed by the wonderfully named Blessing Offor, a former contestant on The Voice. Indeed, there are several collaborations, both in terms of music and lyrics, here, the second up being ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, a co-write with Nielson Hubbard and the ubiquitous Ben Glover, the latter part of the backing vocals while David Brewer contributes penny whistle and Johnstone sounds like a female Tom Waits. Glover not only also shares a credit on the similarly themed, Gaelic-flavoured piano waltz ballad ‘Seasons Of Time’, but also sings lead while Johnstone harmonises and accompanies and Olivia Korkola adds violin to the cello and whistle.
She also takes a vocal backseat on ‘That’s What You Don’t Know’, co-writer Hunter Nelson stepping up for a dreamy, pedal steel caressed evocation of some 40s ballroom slow dance on a song about how the screen persona of its celluloid star hides the sadness of the man behind the smile for the camera.
Her vocals back in the mix behind the piano, the reflective ‘All I Ever Do’ adds percussion and David Pomeroy’s fretless bass to the pedal steel and whistle with Tim Hockenberry on harmonies as the lyrics mix loss and hope in the lines “It’s a lonely life I’m living/But I’m gonna wait and see/What this old, broken-down world/Has left for me”.
Again featuring cello and pedal steel, ‘One Good Reason’ is a wholly self-penned song of a relationship in crisis, but not yet past the point of no return (“We’ve got so much to lose/You’d never be so blind/Or fool enough to choose/To leave it all behind”), while, shifting rhythm patterns, ‘Serenita’, co-written with Maggie Doyle, sung by Brandon Jesse, Johnston duetting on the chorus with Linley Hamilton on trumpet, turns to storytelling about a wedding doomed to tragedy when a storm blows in, the groom left waiting at the chapel and now drinking away his despair.
Another solo Johnstone credit, here with Matt Rollings adding accordion to cello and pedal steel, ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way’ strikes a seasonal note, although its theme of being alone at Christmas with your regrets, through the actions of your own dysfunctional heart, is on the bittersweet side of festive.
The final two numbers are both all her own work, Nick Scott and Hockenberry accompanying on upright bass and trombone, respectively, for ‘So Easy To Forget’, a song of the hurt of being let go that essentially revisits Jim Reeves’ Am I That Easy To Forget’ from the female perspective of “an ordinary fling” who’d hoped for something more. It ends in total solo mode with ‘Paradise’, a song about past dreams, present laughter and future hopes that play out as a wistful piano ballad but which, in other hands, could equally as easily be transformed into a Springsteenesque full-powered anthem. That’s the sign of a real songwriter; the album serves eloquent reminder that Johnstone superbly embodies the singer half of the hyphenate too.
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‘One Good Reason’ – live: