Eric Johanson teams up with Luther and Cody Dickinson, of North Mississippi Allstars fame, to create his second offering of blues rock originals on Below Sea Level. With Luther at the helm as producer, Cody on drums, and Terrance Grayson on bass, Johanson writes, plays, and sings at a level that far exceeds his efforts on 2017’s Burn It Down—a quality album in its own right. The artistic leaps stem from a greater sense of confidence witnessed in all facets of the music. Whether that comes from recording at Zebra Ranch Studios, his top-notch supporting cast, or just three years of maturity is unknown, but this new Eric Johanson is a different musician.
The blues-heavy sound and powerful guitar playing remain a large part of Johanson’s identity. He continues to imagine direct and memorable riffs to accompany his searing slide leads—which serve as the centerpiece for much of the album—but he writes with more originality and complexity. It also helps that Johanson seamlessly meshes with Grayson and the Dickinson Brothers.
Most of the songs on Below Sea Level open strongly, and with its crafty syncopated riff and rhythm combination, “Buried Above Ground” is no exception. Besides being one of the strongest numbers of the set, it sets the ominous mood with a barely audible wind-howl that lurks behind guitar-punctuated verses and an energetic buzzy solo, as Johanson sings, “Don’t try to tell me ‘bout the Devil. I live below sea level.” “Have Mercy” sounds entirely different, but also opens dynamically, this time with a hand-clapped rhythm and an overdriven amplifier burst. And he peppers the track with clever bluesisms, admitting it’s “too late for walking and too proud to crawl,” speaking of a “collection plate with pistols at your head.”
“Change The Universe” deviates from the album’s hard-rocking blues backbone, and allows Johanson to expose another facet of his music. Slower in tempo and softer in mood, he trades in his searing overdrive for an echoed guitar tone on a more pensive number, perhaps influenced by Ray Jacildo’s sublime Hammond organ work.
The Dickinson’s touch colors the swampy timbre of “Hammer On The Stone,” where the deep, languid riff gets pulled through the progressions by Grayson’s throbbing bass. “River Of Oblivion” sinks pleasantly deeper into the sonic mire and drags the lyrics with it. Johanson tackles drug addiction by deftly weaving in, out, and around the metaphor he constructs. “Dose of Forget” stays on subject, but paints a slightly lighter picture on a brief “dose” of a tune, neatly switching cadences through verse, chorus, and instrumental sections.
“Love Is Rebellion” puts forth the most hopeful and upbeat vibe on an album of mostly dark, gritty rock. Largely acoustic, it contains the best solo of the offering and is among the best songs on the album. Proving he’s not dependent on the crushing electricity of some of his previous songs, Johanson closes the album by himself on a timeless acoustic ode to New Orleans with “Riverbend Blues.”
With Below Sea Level, Eric Johanson draws the perfect blueprint for avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump by simply being more creative and doing everything better. As expected, the guitar work is excellent and Johanson’s voice is natural and honest, giving the music an authentic feel that leans upon the blues classics while maintaining its originality. The band is stellar, and there seems to be a real chemistry between Johanson’s writing and the Dickinson’s Mississippi Hill Country sound. This is a great album and fans will eagerly await another collaboration.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Buried Above Ground
– Changes The Universe
– River Of Oblivion
– Dose Of Forget
– Love Is Rebellion
The Big Hit
– Buried Above Ground