Published on December 9th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion Invite You to ‘Wassaic Way’
As a singer/songwriter, Johnny Irion is accustomed to working within the general boundaries of traditional roots music, from strummy folk-pop to twangier mountain styles. But there’s a rowdy rock ‘n’ roll side to the Carolina native’s original music that inevitably pops up from time to time. It’s on display throughout much of Irion and wife/bandmate Sarah Lee Guthrie’s new studio album Wassaic Way.
Carefully produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and Wilco guitarist Patrick Sansone at the Loft studio in Chicago, the tunes on Wassaic Way reach further into classic rock, power pop, and acoustic anthem territory than some fans might have expected to hear. It’s a diverse, dynamic, and emotive collection for sure.
“I think it’s a moody pop record,” Irion tells Metronome Charleston, speaking from their home in rural Massachusetts (three miles from the farm of Sarah’s father, Arlo Guthrie), on the eve of their Southeastern tour. “You hope that that 42 minutes it takes to listen to it doesn’t feel like two hours. As a lover of good albums, I hope it goes by well for each listener — like reading a good book that you can’t put down.”
Irion and Guthrie started demoing and tracking tunes for Wassaic Way nearly two years ago, recording with Tweedy, Sansone, and various studio musicians during brief visits. It was very different approach to album-making for the duo.
“This was the first album where we really took our time with it,” Irion says. “We started town years ago, and spent about eight months total in the studio. We were never fighting the clock. It was a little terrifying at first, thinking, ‘Oh my god, when are we going to finish it?’ But you get into the right mindset.”
In a way, the making of the new album brought Irion back full circle to his first experiences in bands in the late 1980s and early ’90s. He grew up in Columbia and Durham, N.C., and spent a few years in Charleston after high school, strumming and singing with a few keg party garage bands
“Playing guitar and singing with musicians in Charleston back then was what gave me the confidence to pursue it back in North Carolina shortly after,” Irion says.” Even though we were just playing beer parties and frat houses downtown, I was walking around wearing a blazer and shades like a rock star for a while.”
Irion landed back in Durham in the early 1990s, where he formed the jangly pop-rock combo Queen Sarah Saturday. After a brief stint with N.C. power-pop band Dillon Fence, Irion relocated to Los Angeles in 1997 to pursue songwriting. That’s when he met Sarah Lee Guthrie, the daughter of folksinger Arlo Guthrie and granddaughter of folk icon Woody Guthrie. Irion and Guthrie clicked as a duo and as a couple (they married in 1997).
Over the last 11 year, the twosome have recorded and released a handful of studio and concert albums on the New West, RTE 8 Records, and Ninth Street Opus labels. They also worked on various solo and collaborative projects. Wassaic Way follows their critically acclaimed 2011 collection Bright Examples.
Unlike with some of their more straightforward releases, there’s a “full-band” sound on Wassaic Way that pushes the melodies and lyrics. It’s more than simply two acoustic guitarists, strumming and harmonizing.
The lead track, “Chairman Meow,” is an unusually cheerful, upbeat, three-chord pop with a simple hook that might remind some of Three Dog Night’s groovy “Shambala,” if reimagined by the late George Harrison (see video below).
“That first song, ‘Chairman Meow,’ was one of those songs that almost didn’t fit in at all. We were all like, ‘Where are are we going to put it?’ We decided to put it at the top, which was maybe a bit bold and gutsy. It’s really the only place where it works.”
The reverby, poppy “Circle of Souls” features Guthrie cooing over a Mick Fleetwood-style drum beat provided by Otto Hauser (ex-Vetiver). “Not Feeling It” has a funky, lighthearted contemporary Americana/pop feel. The slow-moving title track story has a few Carole King moments (and some elegant sleigh bells and electric piano, too). “9 Outta 10 Times” features an analog drum machine and atmospheric, eerie guitar work.
“There’s some fun guitar stuff going on, and I’m really proud of some of it,” Irion says. “Jeff and Pat actually kept some of my initial demo tracks that I did in my basement.”
The somber, thumping Neil Young-ish “Probably Gone” features one of the more memorable guitar solos of the album — a loose, nearly shambling, bent-up thing of beauty (click below).
“I was definitely raising my hand like a kid in class, going, ‘I think I can do it better,” Iron remembers of the “Probably Gone” solo. “But they kept it, and it works.”
“Jeff and Pat even kept some of the drums I did on my old Slingerland kit,” Irion adds. “They drew some it from the GarageBand tracks because they thought we’d just never be able to reproduce the rawness of the original sound.”
How rock ‘n’ roll.
Charleston Listening Room, Suncoast Promotions, and Awendaw Green present Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion with Danielle Howle + Firework Show at the Circular Congregational Church (150 Meeting St.) at 8 p.m. on Sat. Dec. 14. Admission is $15, $12 in advance). Visit sarahleeandjohnny.com for more.
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