Johnny Foreigner have always been a band to write songs about what they know. From growing up in England’s second city of Birmingham (Waited Up Til It Was Light), through adventures as a band on tour (Grace and the Bigger Picture), to the trials and tribulations of life in general (Johnny Foreigner vs Everything); songwriter Alexei Berrow’s lyrical range has widened with every release. Correspondingly, the band’s musical vision has expanded. Debut Waited Up Til It Was Light shoves squealing guitar riffs and boy/girl yelps in your face with glee, but more recent albums have seen Alexei, Kelly and Junior experiment with downbeat melody. They've lost some of the snappiness that made them so much fun to begin with. All this brings us to You Can Do Better, their first album in three years, and an opportunity to show what a band does when they’ve covered “everything” already.
From the first swirling crash of drum, Johnny Foreigner sound like a band reborn. The opening one-two of "Shipping" and "Le Sigh" will leave you breathless in the space of five and a half adrenaline-pounding minutes. The former starts with the aforementioned drums and a killer guitar hook; the second sounds like it burst from the same session as "Eyes Wide Terrified" and "Yr All Just Jealous". This rejuvenated, full-throttled energy could be put down to the new addition of an extra guitarist, Lewis. He allows Alexei to let his fingers loose on his fret-board, like a hyper pac-man, without losing power or dynamism from the tracks. The dual guitar attack is supported by the ever reliable rhythm cavalry of Kelly and Junior, on bass and drums respectively. They keep every beat in check while all hell breaks loose around them.
Johnny Foreigner really have created a sound of their own, and across You Can Do Better you can hear all of the elements that make a Johnny Foreigner record just that. Wailing guitars ("Wifi Beach"), abrupt starts and stops ("Le Schwing") and battling vocals ("In Capitals") are all present, but the band haven’t lost the creativity documented on their previous albums. "Devastator" is slow-building, minimal and full of self-loathing and regret. It climaxes in drama and ticks off to secret track "To The Deaf", which chimes beautifully and concludes with a brassy surprise. "Riff Glitchard" is a downbeat but sparkling track, reminiscent of "American Football" with its simple rhythm and bright guitar-line. It settles your pulse rate after the whirlwind opening. It also showcases Kelly’s vocals, which sit on the fine line between heart-wrenched and heart-wrenching, and contains the album’s lyrical highlight when she laments, “I might as well be an organ in your body, the damage I do, when I do nothing.” It’s in moments like this that you remember it’s been seven years since their debut release. Where they used to exclaim excitedly that “hot girls know the words to our songs”, they now anxiously sing, in unison, “I started drinking alone.” While the band have recovered their urgency, there’s no hiding their world-weariness, especially as they have always worn their heart on their sleeves so earnestly.
You Can Do Better is an odd paradox, simultaneously feeling like a new beginning and continuation of the old for Johnny Foreigner. It’s an album that will please current fans of the band and will hopefully bring in new ones with its infectious melodies, scrappy energy and raw honesty. It’s almost over too quickly, but what it tells us across ten tracks is that Johnny Foreigner are back with their punchiest , and best, album to date.
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The opener Shipping is a good indication where this ship is sailing with its distorted guitars, hectic drums and somewhat angsty lyrics (“I started drinking alone”).
Le Sigh marks the shortest song on the record and is also available for free download so you can see for yourself if you dig their sound. It’s what I’d call a typical JoFo song, loud and fast with ironic lyrics such as ” your bands all sound like a copy of a copy of a copy etc.” (the Matrix, anyone?) or “give me a scene where the hype comes last and a nightbus that just comes” (amen to that). As for the title, I’m not sure it’s supposed to mean anything other than prefixing an English term with a french article just for fun. This is outdone by the penultimate song Le Schwing, the latter being German for swing.
The first three songs all sound a bit uniform and typical for JoFo. Four songs into the record, there is a cut. Riff Glitchard (evidently a pun on Cliff Richards and the words riff and glitch) starts out as an instrumental post rock song until eventually Kelly’s vocals kick in. I must say that I prefer Kelly’s cleaner vocals to her usual singing that borders on screaming (which is a common issue I have with female vocalists). Only at the end it explodes into the usual JoFo noise pop. The song was previously released on their Manhatten Project EP last year.
After this intermezzo, the record is pretty much back to your usual JoFo sound. Stop Talking About Ghosts being a self-reference to their cover and video art shows that these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. The final regular track The Devastator ends the record on a softer tune whose 10 minutes running time is achieved by the addition of a hidden track To The Deaf.
All in all, Johnny Foreigner do what they do best on this one delivering enjoyable and often tongue-in-cheek punk pop songs with dual vocals provided by Alexei Berrow and Kelly Southern. However, after a few listens the record didn’t really stick with me and I’m having a hard time telling the difference between this one and their previous releases. It’s an enjoyable album but if you didn’t like JoFo before this one isn’t likely to change your mind. If you did, you will love this one just as much as all the others. With all the self-irony implied by the title, I don’t believe they can do better, but then again they don’t need to.
As someone who has been listening to Johnny Foreigner from their first EP and has seen them live countless times, I can honestly say for me their 4th LP is their best yet. It has the distinct Johnny Foreigner sound, but the addition of a fourth member seems to have upped the intensity.
The album flies through (stay put for the secret track) and every track is strong. 'Shipping' is a great start to the album and an indication to what to expect. 'Riff Glitchard' calms everything down (temporarily) but the standout track for me is 'To The Death.' Having read what the song is about the lyrics are very personal, and it actually moved me in a big way.
This album is definitely my favourite of 2014 so far, and is a brilliant listen for the hardcore Johnny Foreigner addicts or the newcomers to the party (where have you been?!)