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Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Wide Awake” is lyrical ambition wrapped in ear candy

14 August 2020 No Comment
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The late 80s spawned a host of music acts that fell within the rather short-lived (at least in the musical mainstream) genre popularly referred to as “sophisti-pop”. Despite the ephemeral nature of its time in the limelight, the music from this genre has undoubtedly stood the test of time sounding as fresh today as it did back when it was released. Johnny Hates Jazz were undoubtedly the leader of this pack. Their musical template was an invigorating blend of sophisti-pop, a hint of New Wave, and a pop/rock sensitivity drenched in studio gloss. The high-quality production of the band’s bass player (and producer) Mike Nocito made a winning complement to lead singer Clark Datchler’s top-notch songwriting. Despite the unadulterated melancholy that permeated through the songs’ lyrics,the predominantly uptempo vibe of their debut album “Turn back the clock” made its singles, part of the sonic backdrop for celebrations. The disintegration of the band’s original incarnation seemed to have happened almost soon after they catapulted to fame with singles such as “Shattered Dreams”(this timeless classic continues to enjoy radio airplay across the world), “Heart of Gold”, and “Turn back the clock”.  Their unabashed swagger in their high-quality music videos made them irresistible to the music video enthusiasts of the MTV generation. In a nutshell, they had morphed from a band to a brand with a single album. Hence, it should not come as a surprise that they left fans longing for more when they went their separate ways. Fortunately, the story did pick up where it left off with Clark Datchler and Mike Nocito reuniting as Johnny Hates for the release of their album “Magnetized” in 2013. 25 years between two albums (by the band’s original incarnation) is an unusually long hiatus, and expectations were undoubtedly (and probably unrealistically) high. The duo seemed to be quite cognizant of this reality and rose to the occasion by delivering a worthy successor to their debut album “Turn back the clock”. “Magnetized” retained the same elements that made their debut album a timeless classic while also demonstrating progression with tangential forays into rock and Indie Alternative territory. I had the opportunity to interview Clark Datchler and Mike Nocito in 2011 while they were toiling away in the recording studio working on “Magnetized”. During the interview, Clark said the following towards the end of the interview:

There has become more of a disconnect between what artists are writing about (and singing about), and what is happening in the world around them. In the 80s, 70s, and 60s, there were quite a few songs that were relevant NOT just to the very human things that we experience, and long to experience, and sometimes don’t experience such as love or relationships. But I think there are other things and bigger questions that we are facing across the world that I would like to see people expressing through the form of music. There must be support for artists wanting to reflect the world around them in what they are writing about what they are performing.

The above response, in combination with the streak of environmental activism that has come to define Clark Datchler’s personal evolution constitutes a thinly veiled hint at what was likely to be a dominant theme (from a lyrical perspective) on the new album “Wide Awake”. On this album, the duo trades (largely, but not completely) Johnny Hates Jazz-esque melancholy for social commentary without sacrificing commercial viability and accessibility of the music – and fortunately, it works!

The album has a very clear Side A/Side B demarcation with the first five tracks (Vinyl enthusiasts are likely to enjoy this thematic split) being devoted largely to social commentary while the second half is a mixed bag of melancholy, optimism, and escapism. The album opens with the 70s-esque downtempo lead single “Spirit of love”. The song is a desperate call for what we need (i.e. the spirit of love) at this very moment as many of us try to grapple with the various facets and implications of the Covid19 pandemic and the crippling sense of hopelessness that it has left. That being said, the song does not adequately prepare the listeners for the highlights to follow.

On the achingly beautiful “Love the Light”, lead singer Clark Datchler sings about how mankind is paving the way for environmental devastation and the extinction of animal species with the following lines:

I hate the way the powerful

Profit from the vulnerable

They rule the world with sticks and stones

And build their mansions out of bones

I wanna cry each time I hear

Another species disappear

I wanna scream I wanna shout

It feels like time is running out

The song’s most sublime moment is the harmonica solo (that follows the second chorus) that drifts gently in an electronic soundscape. It benefits from being decidedly modern but with a vintage polish.

On the groovy mid-tempo “Greater good”, Clark Datchler appears to be lampooning myopic, self-centered and arrogant leaders (Well it’s a crazy time and that’s a fact, The world is full of egomaniacs, They wanna be the biggest and the best, To pass the test they will damn the rest). In reality, “Greater good” is a commentary on how a self-focused individuality has eclipsed a spirit of togetherness as  we tackle the problems that we face as a society. Stylistically, this song would have fit seamlessly on the “Turn Back the clock” album. Thematically, it  is most apt for the present as the world is witnessing the impact that leadership styles and a culture of selfishness have on the trajectory of countries tackling the turmoil that has come to define the year 2020.

If the first four tracks on the album paint a picture of the precarious times that we are in, “Wide Awake” is the emphatic call to action (and hence makes an apt title track for the album) aimed at forcing us out of our  perennial state of  self-absorption and complacence. “Wide awake”, with its saxophone embellishments and light string arrangements has a timeless feel to it and makes for an appropriate ending to the album’s “Side A”.

The highlights of the album’s “Side B” could NOT be more different. The down-tempo “No mistakes” opens with an aha-esque keyboard melody and questions whether or not we have any free will as it applies to our ability to be architects of the paths that our personal relationships follow. It is most reminiscent of Johnny Hates Jazz’s comeback single “Magnetized” in spirit if not in terms of its tempo. In contrast, the  stylistic deviant  of the album “Don’t stop the music”  unquestionably demands  inclusion on party playlists. In a non-pandemic world, this unapologetically escapist Future Soul track would have been my pick for the album’s lead single if I had been the primary decision maker for the singles strategy for the “Wide awake” album. This just could be the pop song of 2020. Listeners  will not be able to resist   dancing in their living rooms to this incredibly poptastic track that showcases Clark Datchler as a fountain of youth and producer Mike Nocito as a man who shows no signs of losing his studio mojo.

While the departure of lead singer Clark Datchler was the catalyst for the disintegration of the first incarnation of Johnny Hates Jazz in 1988, what many casual fans might not know is that there was a second incarnation of the band featuring hit songwriter Phil Thornalley (“Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia is one of his more noteworthy songwriting feats) as the band’s primary songwriter and lead singer. The album the new trio made together is called “Tall Stories”. Sadly, despite some great moments on the album, its lack of singles to rival those of its predecessor led to the album performing relatively poorly from a commercial perspective. It would be tempting for the current incarnation to distance themselves from this chapter of their story. The first sign that they have no desire to do so emerged at their 30th anniversary concert to celebrate their debut album “Turn Back The Clock” becoming a UK album chart topper. They performed “Let me change your mind tonight” from the “Tall Stories” at the concert with Clark Datchler on vocals. It suggested a reverence between the two lead singers as opposed to a rivalry. This mutual reverence has blossomed further with Phil Thornalley being actively involved in the writing and recording of the majority of the tracks (to varying degrees) on the “Wide Awake” album. The album has undoubtedly benefited from his midas touch and serves as a reminder that a band stands a lot to gain by embracing its sonic heritage.

As a critic, it is difficult to resist the temptation to make comparisons (and I realize how unfair this is to artists and bands) between a band’s new material and their older material that propelled them to stardom. While “Wide awake” holds up very well in the context of the Johnny Hates Jazz legacy, songs that cater to the hopeless romantic are conspicuous by their absence on this album. On the “Turn back the clock” and “Magnetized” albums, the band delivered with gusto on this dimension with songs such as “Listen” and “Release you”. There are no sonic parallels to these songs on “Wide awake”. While this does not detract from the album, those of us (me included) that were expecting songs like these might be a little disappointed.

A stellar legacy can be a boon and a curse. That being said, “Wide awake” is the artistic manifestation of a band that has successfully extricated themselves from the shackles of the past and feels empowered to make the album they wanted to make. It is unclear whether or not Clark Datchler and Mike Nocito felt this level of liberation while writing and recording the “Magnetized” album. I imagine they were cognizant of the extent to which they had to retain the defining elements of their debut album “Turn back the clock” while also accurately reflecting the extent to which they had evolved musically. “Wide awake” is likely to make fans believe that the duo felt no such pressure this time and that they were better off for it.

“Wide awake” is also a sign of a band unafraid of pushing thematic boundaries as they address inconvenient truths through the lyrics of the songs on the first half of the album. Hopefully, this serves as an inspiration to modern music acts that feel like they need to conform to a cookie cutter template (both in a thematic and stylistic sense). Furthermore, it ought to drive in the point that commercial viability and lyrical depth do NOT have to be mutually exclusive in the context of pop music. With the lyrical ambition of Clark Datchler and the studio wizardry of Mike Nocito wrapped in ear candy, “Wide awake” just might be the album of 2020. I can barely wait to see where the next chapter of this band’s musical journey takes them.

Last, but not least, we had the opportunity to interview Clark Datchler, the band’s lead singer to discuss “Wide Awake”. Here it is:

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 STARS

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