Album review: "Up Close"
Eric Johnson may not be well known among the public, but among his fellow guitarists, he is a hero for his astonishing skill and distinctive tone. Four of those admiring colleagues - Jonny Lang, Jimmie Vaughn, Sonny Landreth and Steve Miller - show up on Johnson's latest album, "Up Close" (available on vinyl as well as CD).
On this project, the Texas guitarist subordinates his chops to the listener's pleasure. Seven of the disc's tracks are songs and eight are instrumentals, but all are built around pop hooks and pop grooves wrapped in layers of musical invention. The results may be less technically dazzling than his earlier efforts but are more satisfying.
The first thing you notice about the mid-tempo instrumental "Gem," for example, is the enchanting tune created by cycling through broken chords. Only later do you realize how the sumptuous tone and effortless phrasing have disguised the dexterity of the playing. A descending cascade of guitar notes introduces the love song "Arithmetic," but they soon recede to allow the heartfelt vocal to step forward. When the guitar reclaims the foreground for short breaks, it reinforces the vocal's mood rather than emphasizing virtuosity. The disc's highlight is "A Change Has Come to Me," which begins as a pop ditty and morphs into a psychedelic extravaganza.
--Geoffrey Himes, Aug. 5, 2011