When you’re making a simple dish, the quality of the ingredients becomes even more important, since they’re doing more of the work. No one complains about low-grade tomatoes in chili. The tomatoes however, might be more of a concern in a tomato and mozzarella salad. Which isn’t to say that we’re pivoting to a food blog here, but rather to point out that Jeremiah Johnson’s sophomore album, Heavens to Betsy, uses a few top-notch ingredients very effectively.
The main ingredient is Johnson’s voice, which is rich and foggy, engulfing each song like smoke from a pipe, sweet and comforting, but also with a hint of danger (Because every conversation about a pipe begins with ‘Oh no. Is something burning? Oh. It’s just a pipe. That smells nice!’). He’s able to work well in a number of styles, but one of the strongest performances is on “Ecstasy,” a pop blues that forces Johnson to croon while also working a pop melody. It’s a fine line where slipping could leave the listener with a song that sounds either too sad or inappropriately upbeat. But Johnson nails the performance, with the band even finding time to slip in some “Wind Cries Mary” nods.
Which brings us to the next ingredient, which is the songwriting. Johnson and his band cover everything from pop to rock to country, but it broadly pulls a lot from classic rock. “Leo Stone” is laid-back rock track that somehow feels like a mash-up of The Band and Van Morrison. “Preacher’s Daughter” is rooted in gospel and 1950s rock. “American Steel” is muscular 1970s rock that you can almost imagine coming from a band like Bad Company. But even Johnson’s cover of “Born Under a Bad Sign,” made famous by Albert King and Cream (sadly, separately), is a curve ball, with a funky bassline and a groove that’s danceable.
The final key ingredient is Johnson’s horn section, which is all over the album. Even a gentle song like “Ecstasy” benefits from the horns, which never overwhelm the track. Instead, they act more like the wind that moves a boat along, only noticeable by their absence, rather than with their presence. Which isn’t to say they recede into the background. “Castles in the Air,” with its chugging rhythm, is practically punk, but the horns are all over the song, answering the call of driving rhythm.
Johnson and his band impressively combine these ingredients into a tasty dish of an album. It’s not complicated and on paper it might seem too simple, but it’s a hard recipe to replicate. A great voice, strong songs, and a talented horn section make for a blues album that’s high-energy fun. And it’s not something every artist can do as well as Johnson has done on Heavens to Betsy.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Leo Stone
– Preacher’s Daughter
– Born Under a Bad Sign
– Castles in the Air
The Big Hit
Review by Steven Ovadia