Based in St. Paul Minnesota, Johannes & The Secret Life are a five-piece group featuring players and songwriters from a variety of backgrounds. Members Daniel Johannes and Dani Marti draw inspiration from a wide range of American popular music. Critics have described their music as “Alt-Chamber Pop Bliss.” The band explains that their lyrics are “influenced by years of wandering the globe - by choice or obligation - resulting in songs that speak of longing and reflection. Brooding arrangements turn unexpectedly boisterous, with tempo changes and meandering chord progressions.”
The band members are Dani Marti (guitar/vocals), Erica Von Bank (vocals), Paul Nevins (drums/keyboards), Shawn Maroney (bass) and Daniel Carlson (or maybe Daniel Johannes; He seems to use both names) on keys, guitar, drums and vocals. Guests include Zach Miller (saxophone), Matt Nelson (guitar/bass/backing vocals), Nico Munoz (charango/congas) and Greg Byers (cello). They’ve performed live on the radio and have a couple singles in rotation, meanwhile performing around various St. Paul venues like the Aster Caper and The Hook and Ladder Theater.
The band describes their recordings as “layered, harmonic and uniquely rhythmic. The songs are a result of retrospection, usually involving a classical guitar or an old console piano in a dimly-lit room. The arrangements start mellow and build slowly, with instrumental flourishes provided by cellos, saxophones and keyboard textures to name a few. Melodies and chord patterns take sharp turns into sections that serve the movement of a story.” Recording on their self-titled album Johannes & the Secret Life took four years in various locations around Minnesota, with the bulk of these tracks mixed and mastered by producer-engineer Paul Nevins using Reaper, Isotope and Logic.
“All Over The Road” starts with acoustic guitar, piano and cello, creating a laid back, smoky vibe. The lovely main melody is carried by the horns and appears to be doubled with backing vocals. The song proper is difficult to describe, though the band did a good job setting up expectations: “layered, harmonic and uniquely rhythmic.” Harmony vocals take centerstage, singing complex and surprising melodies, followed along by the band playing jazzy arrangements. Perhaps a slowed down, more mellow version of Brian Wilson’s Smile, or Van Dyke Parks? At any rate it’s beautiful enough to play in the background, but complex enough for active listening.
The band notes that “North Or South” was recorded to tape on an analog mixing board, and it does indeed feel a bit more retro: at times it recalls a string-heavy vocal tune of the ’60s but with many surprising twists. Tony Schreiner guests on bass. Male and female unison and harmony vocals float over a continuous pad of strings, slow percussion and finger snaps. Steel drums (or a digital sample) add a calypso feel. This appears to be the band’s first single, which makes sense.
“This Child” features acoustic guitar and vocals like Harry Nilsson. I love the way it visualizes the process of raising a child: “He’s dragging on you everywhere you go / I never knew a child to grow so old.” Is the narrator another parent who understands, or a single person who’s judging from a distance? It’s a close call. The steel drum patch is a bit more prominent. The horn arrangement at the end recalls jazzier Zappa.
“Platform” starts almost seamlessly from the final chords of “This Child.” Johannes and Van Bank trade lead vocals, interacting with the saxophones and handclaps. The chorus harmonies sound a bit like John Lennon with picked electric guitar like George Harrison, while the song itself again feels like a Harry Nilsson-Brian Wilson combine. The track ends with the literal sounds of a transportation platform.
“Li” (pronounced Lee) feels intimate, with a Paul Williams-style like vocal, acoustic guitar, strings and trap-like percussion. There are times when this track feels like country or bluegrass (is that a mandolin I hear?) but as soon as those thoughts cross my mind, the song has morphed into something else. With the beautifully arranged strings and heartfelt vocals, I can easily see this song being performed as the penultimate scene in a Broadway show.
“Cinco Dias” (Five Days) appears to be sung in Spanish (apologies if I’ve gotten the language wrong) and as such has a mysterious, unknowable quality for this gringo. Again the percussion features spare drum hits and strategic handclaps which grow stronger as the song progresses. “Bodies Of Water” sounds a bit like Paul Simon both vocally and musically, though again this band is never content with simple melodies or rhythms. That said, this is one of the more accessible tracks, and again I wasn’t surprised that they released it as the second single. Perhaps my favorite song but don’t hold me to that!
“Rio” features Luis Burdalo on electric guitar. The vocals have the direct quality of Jim Morrison when he wasn’t raving like a madman. The beat shuffles a bit but also seems made up of both drums and rhythmically strummed guitars. These songs present differently with every passing measure, and just as I seem to grasp the key melodic player or background pad, it slips like mercury through my fingers. Both this track and the finale “Souvenir” feature beautiful music that’s stubbornly elusive as to how it was all put together, and also no hint how its disparate elements hang together so well.
This is music that obviously took some time and effort to write and record, and is an album that will reward sincere and open-minded listeners. Excellent!
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