Craig Johnstone is a Canadian alternative country-rock artist currently living in Vancouver, BC. He was formerly a member of the band This-z-This and the wonderfully named Sledge Nicely and the Panty Bandits! From that moniker the perspicacious reader may discern that Craig has a strong sense of humour, and this shows strongly in his songwriting.
His music contains elements of classic folk/country songwriters like Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, and elements of more alternative artists like Tom Waits. He cites these artists as major influences. In the way he combines storytelling and humour in his songs, he brought to mind the great country songwriter John Prine, though there is more rock n’ roll in Johnstone’s music.
This album, We Humans, is a collection of fourteen tracks which Craig has self-produced in his home studio over several years. He has performed the majority of the instruments himself, along with vocals and you can tell that it’s been a labour of love.
Opening song Key of D is a nice introduction to his unique sound. Over a fairly traditional folk chord sequence in 2/4 time (presumably in D!) Craig fuses this with sounds seemingly from outer space, his own voice put though all manner of effects from filtering and distortion to 50’s style slapback echo. There’s a dry, sardonic humour to lines like “Over there, there’s always greener grass, every time I try to fly I wind up on my ass....“.
Next comes the superb Put Down The Gun, Jake, a song full of worldly wisdom about someone about to take revenge on a man who’s stolen his wife from him. The music is rollicking rock ‘n roll that recalls the ramshackle energy of Bob Dylan and The Band’s classic Basement Tapes. It opens with the fantastic line, “If my soul is something I spend when I drink, I must be damn nearly broke I think.…”. The funniest line is unfortunately not printable!
Savin’ Up Pher A Foan Call takes the traditional blues subject matter of a man who’s been abandoned by his woman, and turns it on his head. Johnstone excavates hilarious gallows humour from the clichéd self-pity you find in the stereotypical blues song: “Now the crumbs of our love are all over the room, where she left ’em and she even took the broom….”.
Poor Random Dan’s Great Strategy is another entertaining song, this one about a hapless character who doesn’t seem to know or care how awful his life is. An excellent full-throated vocal performance from Johnstone makes this one stand out.
The title track We Humans comes next, and it’s a distinct change of pace. A plaintive ballad with melancholic and philosophical lyrics, this shows a real depth and poignancy to Craig’s songwriting. As the name implies, it’s about the slightly tragic nature of the human condition: “We can’t even believe our own behaviour, but we humans won’t admit we need a saviour….”. A very profound song, leant extra gravity by the relative levity of the surrounding material.
Next track The Bullshit Song rather proves my point for me. The opening lines tell you all you need to know: “Heaven and Hell, harps and accordions, what’s that smell can you tell where I’ve been?“. The breakneck pace is a nice contrast after the gentle tempo of We Humans.
Arrow, Girl is one of the more enigmatic songs on the album, showing again a deeper, more sensitive side to his songwriting. Like all good lyricists, Craig Johnstone has a fine eye for detail and conjuring imagery: “She wanders around kissing flowers in the pouring rain“. A fine piece of work, with some lovely lead guitar lines.
I Wanna Be A Reg’ler Guy is a return to the satirical humour of the earlier tracks, the target this time at the cliché of the ‘regular Joe’ stereotype. It’s about the man who works 9 to 5 and lives a life of monotonous routine, a life which ultimately kills him: “Early to bed, early to work and early to die…”. Grimly funny and poignant at the same time, the essence of Johnstone’s art.
Diddle-iddle is an interesting song, a gritty lo-fi blues/folk song with a vocal performance inspired by the Tom Waits of his classic Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones albums. In fact, Tom and the former album even gets a namecheck in the following Quarter to Three, courtesy of a clever pun. It’s a very human song about late night drinking and lust, subjects most of us can relate to. It captures the melancholy mood perfectly and the guitar solo is superb on this one.
We Go Together is a sombre ballad that expresses some profound and timeless truths about human beings that brought to mind Bob Dylan’s classic Gates of Eden. The way Johnstone captures the bittersweet and tragicomic in life is a testament to his talent. Beautitudes is another unexpected twist, a chord progression that recalls Bad Moon Rising, with lyrics taken from lines in the Bible. This song expresses the moral seriousness of his music underneath the fantastic humour, as well as expressing his faith.
The next song is a charmingly scruffy cover version of Bob Dylan’s Wallflower, an enjoyable two minutes with a deliciously off-key guitar solo. It leads to the closing six-minute epic (These Are) The Good Ole Days. This is the equivalent of another Dylan song, Desolation Row, in the way that it is simply vocals and guitar with some soul searching lyrics. I took it to be about appreciating what you have and living in the moment: “Sing about today, cos these are the good ‘ol days…”. It’s an important message and an apposite way to close the album.
Overall, this is a very impressive artistic document from a seasoned songwriter who has truly developed a unique style, both musically and lyrically. Mixing the craftsmanship of the classic country songwriters with the humour of John Prine and the quirkiness of Tom Waits, ultimately Craig Johnstone transcends his influences and produces his own home-grown musical alchemy.