Johnstown – Oh Susanna (reviewed by T Bebedor)

Like all art forms, music is at it’s best when it divides opinion, creates conversation and brings about strong feelings, after all, art is something created for others to experience.

Back in 1998 Canadian singer songwriter Suzie Ungerleider recorded ‘Johnstown’, an ambitious debut album that has been described as a contemporary folk-noir masterpiece and gained plaudits and fans from all corners of the world.

You might be wondering why it’s taken two decades to reach this reviewer, (I’m pretty slow at the best of times but I’m rarely twenty years late), this is a 20thAnniversary edition given the treatment of a remastering and five bonus tracks that are the original acoustic demos that later went on to become the cornerstone of the album.

The albums title, Johnstown, refers to the Pennsylvanian town that sat in the direct path of a neglected dam. When that dam burst the town was literally washed away, killing thousands of people in the process (give it a few minutes of research, because it’s a fascinating true story).

It’s a very Biblical tale and one that suited the song writing talent of Ungerleider perfectly, her natural attraction to the macabre, the dark and the menacing reflects in the music and it’s a case of artist and subject coming together.

On first listen I felt the mastering is perhaps too trebly, Ungerleider’s voice is in the higher register and, set against the backdrop of guitar and cymbals, it cries out for some bass to give it foundation and balance, but maybe this is the point. Without realising it, the songs sit uncomfortably, the music is controlled and perfectly played out but above that a lead vocal often gives the feeling that something isn’t right, something far off in the distance is changing and the impact will affect all. Of course, in the geographical sense, this was true, some fourteen miles away a wall of water was coming. But on repeated listening you get to understand the album, you’re introduced to characters, to songs and to the variation and power within the album until it plays out like a doomed television series, one where your favourite character may survive or may not.

There is a reason that albums get the remastering treatment, it’s because there is something still important to be said and to be heard and a new audience can be welcomed to the club. At times it feels like a late 90’s album, but there is something even more unsettling about how music, that was written twenty years ago about living in the shadow of an uncertain power, can feel relevant today.


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