Pivoting away from 2020’s intensely electrified Below Sea Level, New Orleans native Eric Johanson follows his sophomore effort with a collection of raw, acoustic covers. The ten songs on Covered Tracks: Vol. 1 feature a diverse selection ranging from a pop-folk ballad by The Cardigans (“Feathers and Down”) to traditional pre-war numbers courtesy of Skip James (“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”). Though the original prose and structures of the material span across several genres, Johanson conveys a solid sense of artistic identity in that many of the tracks diverge wildly from the originals, and end up sounding as if they were Johanson compositions.
As with any covers album, selecting a mix of some best fitting songs along with a few unexpected, off-genre ventures constitutes half the challenge of a successful offering, and Johanson does an excellent job of keeping the variety interesting. The other half of the battle lies in finding ways to reimagine songs without leaning on excessive instrumental diversions, instead finding a way to convincingly make the tunes one’s own. The sparse slide guitar accompaniment and direct vocal delivery help Johanson achieve the second objective.
Starting with Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” Johanson strips the track down to its iconic chord structure, adding his own touches by replacing the original horn flourishes with sharp, concise slide licks. Without electrifying the guitar’s contributions, his voice gets equal billing here and on the rest of the album’s tracks—something not witnessed on his previous records. Johanson’s voice sounds comparatively youthful against his guitar tone, which does sound like it could have originated in earlier blues eras. But that doesn’t imply that his vocal tone lacks soul. On the contrary, the vocals on Free’s “Oh I Wept” bear an eerie resemblance to the blue-eyed soul of Paul Rodgers.
Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes” stay a little closer to the source material, as does “Midnight Rider.” The interest here lies in Johanson’s whole-hearted singing and tight-but-meaningful guitar adornments. “House of the Rising Sun” may hold less appeal due to the abundance of versions that audiences have heard throughout the years, but it does serve as potentially the album’s best vocal performance. “Deep Deep Water” takes the unusual approach of cutting the run-time of Gatemouth Brown’s jazz-influenced original, and sticks to a more spartan, gritty blues feel.
The real stars of the show are “Feathers and Down” and “Head Like A Hole.” Both stand out as the album’s biggest reaches and greatest successes. On the former, Johanson shows a lot of maturity by taking a slow, patient approach, and adding just the right amount of instrumental flair. The latter will garner the most repeats for Johanson’s excellent adaptation of the unforgettable chorus progression onto his slide stylings. The track sounds as if it could have been the original in a parallel universe. The match is as unique as it is perfect.
Like so many others forced to adapt to an unwelcoming pandemic environment, Eric Johanson has spun a difficult situation into a successful artistic project. Covered Tracks: Vol. 1 serves as an example of an artist unafraid to leave the studio gloss behind and offer listeners an honest look into his musical background. The no-frills blues stylings should please aficionados while the far-flung choices might draw newcomers as they get a look at the flexibility of the blues through the eyes of a talented musician.
The Review: 8/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– Head Like A Hole
– Feathers and Down
– Deep Deep Water
– Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
The Big Hit
– Head Like A Hole