Last updated on September 12, 2017
Until John Calvin Abney reappeared with Better Luck, he’d been a fixture in one particular corner of my mind. The last three semesters of my college experience were a difficult time for IC, as they include a 6-month shutdown of IC: the only substantial break I’ve taken in 11.5 years of writing here. I restarted tentatively in January 2009, trying to wrap my head around the impending end of college and the seemingly-unanswerable question of “what am I doing with Independent Clauses?”
That’s when I got to know John Calvin Abney: I went to his concerts, listened to his music, and even got him to help me record my debut indie-pop album. The working relationship helped get me back into music when I had been stalled for a while. But all things go; I left college, he left college, and we lost touch. So it’s with much amazement that I note several incredible things: 1. I get to debut John Calvin Abney’s Better Luck here on Independent Clauses and 2. John Calvin Abney is touring right now with M. Lockwood Porter, whom I met in high school and premiered an album for in 2014. It’s mind-bending, the smallness of worlds.
Yes, yes, that’s very nice disclosure-cum-nostalgia, Stephen, but how does the record sound? Better Luck is a confident collection of tunes that draws off troubadour fingerpicking, alt-country arrangements, and a history of woodshedding. If you can imagine what Jason Isbell’s alt-country might sound like if he was a little more influenced by freak-folk and indie-pop, then you can imagine Abney’s sound. Fingerpicking ballads like “Scarecrow” and “James and Julie” are evocative, catchy, and beautifully arranged, while noisier tunes like “Stepladder” and “Dallas City Lights” include some of the guitar solos that made Calvin such an impressive musician to watch live a half-decade ago.
But where earlier versions of Abney wanted to be a indie-pop songwriter and a guitar god simultaneously, Better Luck shows him in tasteful, refined form. I’d bet Abney can still wail live, but on record he’s developed a cool, confident persona that translates to easily-relatable songs instead of towering walls of guitar heroics. There are moments that call for some guitar thunder, but they’re set in service of the overall song instead of vice versa. His voice has also tightened up: the melodies and delivery are easy, smooth, and inflected with subtleties that turn songs like “James and Julie” and “Scarecrow” from good songs to great ones. (He can also still wail a harmonica with the best of them, which is a bonus wherever you can get it.)
Abney’s songs have a home base in the space between alt-country (“I Can’t Choose,” “Stepladder,” “Cut the Rope”) and folk (“Sirens,” “Scarecrow”), with some outliers in related genres: the ominous, bluesy slant of “Gold Silver”; the Coldplay-esque piano balladry of “Museums”; and the perky, indie-pop-influenced title track, which would have fit neatly as the best track on an early EP of his. Throughout it all, Abney delivers memorable vocal performances, strong songwriting, and tight arrangements.
Just as I noted for tourmate M. Lockwood Porter, John Calvin Abney inhabits these songs thoroughly: nothing feels out of place, nothing feels forced. Porter uses that ease to shuffle through genres like a deck of cards; despite the distinct genre influences that can be noted throughout, Abney seems to be honing down into a definable style. What I can only assume was ruthless editing throughout the process has delivered these songs to their final form in top shape. Better Luck is the product of hard work in developing a sound; that work results in a tight, crisp, earnest album of alt-country/folk songs that resonate easily and deeply.