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Wednesday, February 21,2001

John McKenna


John McKenna
Sweet Mystery / Purple Music

Acoustic folk rock was popular for a decade or so with the likes of John Denver and Joan Biaz, but don't wax nostalgic for olive polyester pants and shag carpet just yet. A very decent spiritual folk guitarist lives and works right here in our own backyard.

When first listening to Sweet Mystery, one is immediately hit with the awesome vocal harmonies. The singing is almost more powerful than the soulful guitar work, but topping both of those is the message.

John McKenna sings about enlightenment. Not enlightenment in a cheesy evangelical way, but as a person who truly believes he has found something profound and beautiful. No preaching, no brimstone, no guilt, no damnation-just hope and beauty. It's a welcome change from the death and hate that bombard us every day.

The album is enigmatic. It swirls around your mind with the guitars and vocal harmonies that paint a picture of spiritual discovery. It opens on a powerful beat with "Requiem for a Poet," followed by "Seven Mountains" and "Blue on Blue." McKenna describes his musical style as esoteric folk rock, and his songs are reminiscent of the most haunting Simon and Garfunkle tunes.

What exactly is Sweet Mystery about? "The divine love and magical coincidences that sort of trickle through my life," McKenna explains. "It seems that I live off the grace of the great mystery and I am very grateful, because if I were left to my own devices it would probably be a disaster. It is about surrender and opening one's heart in order to receive the grace. The divine luck. These days I am happy and complete and I owe it all to divine luck, the method of the Sweet Mystery." Now that's poetry.

It's refreshing to hear a thought-inducing album that is mellow without being sappy, relaxing without being boring. No, he doesn't make bubble-gum-pop, or ear-bleeding heavy metal, but an almost forgotten art form in this world of music without a message.

-Kim Kosnar

Had A Burning / Speakeasy

Wrapping lap steels, fiddles and screeching guitars around crooked flashbacks of Indiana-farm-boy angst can be like molding a Wal-Mart-bought, stiff-brim Catapillar cap to a standard-issue forehead. Regardless of the amount of poking and prodding, it simply won't fit, ever. But, then again, that seems to be the proper similie for Carl Gustav Johns' "postmodern hillbilly."

On NoahJohn's Had A Burning, the twisted lyrics stand above the clamor. The talent's in the tales.

A trilogy of animals kicks off Johns' crisp follow-up to his critically-acclaimed Tadpoles. "Not gonna use no/More Metaphor," he sings in "Ima Clam," which jumps from a tight-lipped, well, metaphor, to a youthful trip to Florida in a Nash Rambler back to bawdy existential reflections. "Porter," a subtle knee-slapping, fiddle-heavy number, beautifully recounts a scavenging mutt's nightmare of getting trapped underneath a stove, and his subsequent porch-top dream of his halcyon days as a pup at his mothers teat. He rounds out his introductory bestial trilogy with "Wounded Rabbit," the most disturbingly powerful track on the disk, in which a dying bunny, freshly dropped from the jaw's of a "predator," is marvelously eulogized and posthumously buried by a "burnpile/Shrouded in paper towels."

This witty blend of the sacred and the sacrilegious permeates Had A Burning's baker's dozen of sentimental, anti-country ditties. Startlingly honest and irreverent, it could have been the soundtrack to Harmony Korine's Gummo, which, similarly, finds startling beauty in white-trash, middle America. With his "Drunkle," and his "Sister's Recital" to draw from, Johns taps his jaded-family memory bank with astounding clarity, emotional intensity and sometimes-shocking honesty.

P.W. Miller

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