With his tussled hair, well-worn guitar, and harmonica rack, John Calvin Abney at first fits an all too familiar mold. He seems poised to spin stories of wisdom beyond his years under the guise of a rambling traveler who has seen more of the world than many dare. While this angle is absolutely in his wheelhouse, he chooses instead to apply his keen songwriting sensibilities to inward thoughts further from reach. He writes with the kind of reflection that asks more questions than answers, yet by doing so, he finds deep understanding in his subjects. He breathes an organic quality into his songs while retaining that sense of the unknown, and the dynamic works remarkably well on Far Cries and Close Calls.
Just as Abney isn’t quite what he seems, so too is the full-length follow-up to his acclaimed 2015 debut. The title is derived from the song “Imposter”, wherein he states at a bittersweet tempo, “I’m tired of telling the same old stories / Far cries and close calls are weary and worn.” Here, he disparages his own title as cliché, indicating that his songs won’t themselves be far cries and close calls. Rather, he’s speaking from a bigger world in which those songs exist.
In keeping with this theme, the album’s art features a denim jacket, also weary and worn. Upon close inspection, the color scheme proves to be an imposter, too. It isn’t painted blue, but rather integrates mishmash tones of grey and purple to convey that color while never truly embodying it. It is subtler than, say, a Magritte painting, but it shares the same ideas and perfectly conveys the way Abney challenges within the bounds of familiarity.
Abney and his bandmates create a full sound that reflects all of this on Far Cries.
The big single is “Goodbye Temporarily,” a bright, organ-fueled folk-pop number that’s as catchy as it is lyrically downbeat. To an unassuming listener, it can easily seem sunnier than it actually is. The pre-chorus starts out with the line “I chose a dead horse in a race” and segues to the chorus that chimes, “Out of line, but what’s the use? / It’s goodbye temporarily.” After a few minutes, there is also a false finish, a literal temporary goodbye, that is supplanted by a zing of harmonica as the band kicks into a few final measures.
In context, “Goodbye Temporarily” is a prime second track to the LP’s opener, “Beauty Seldom Seen”, which shares the same upbeat tempo but establishes the record’s introspective, occasionally bleak tone with its minor key. Beautifully arranged guitar, keyboard, and pedal steel guitar adorn the stereo channels as Abney rings out the song’s motif of “Can’t you remember rock ‘n roll, how it made us feel?”
The album isn’t without its rollicking good-time moments, though. “I’ll Be Here, Mairead” boasts southern electric guitar, sassy fiddle, and bar piano ivory tickling while “Jailbreak” paints its crafty rhyme scheme with harmonica and rock organ. Both are peppered around the middle of the tracklist and inject the right amount of energy to sustain through the more laid-back cuts. They are big and fun without steeping for a low common denominator.
Abney’s calculated yet intuitive band arrangements reach a high point not by their extravagance, however, but by their restraint.
“In Such a Strange Town”, for instance, is at its foundation a stripped guitar and voice piece, but it interestingly doesn’t have a sonic center. The vocals are overdubbed and separated, and the guitars fiddle across from each other. All adhere to the song but avoid complete unison. Bare drums and soft bass are also in the mix, but they serve moreso to bring out the sluggish tempo that conveys the late night street walks recounted in the lyrics.
The finishing touch is the chorus, which strikes an odd melodic note when Abney mentions “strange town.” It lingers before resolving in a quiet instrumental handoff, slyly indulging in this overall notion of limbo wherein he has “confused dreams with memories.” Nice moments like this are all over Far Cries and Close Calls.
Although he is a musician extraordinaire—anyone involved in his storied years of playing with the likes of Samantha Crain and John Moreland could confirm such—he never once showboats. If anything, the album showcases natural imperfections within exceptional performances. If one listens closely to the end of “Jailbreak”, for example, one can catch a tambourine just slightly out of rhythm for a few beats.
It’s very minute, but it’s a reflection of the recording process, which was all done live in a somewhat impromptu session at Fellowship Hall Sound in Arkansas with analog equipment. The result is an album that has a sense of lived-in space and an unmistakable human touch.
This spontaneity embodies the themes coursing through Abney’s work. On “Weekly Rate Palace,” Abney posits that “We all make mistakes” and says, “I’m dying to know if it’s hard work or if it’s just plain luck.” Later, on the stripped, delicate closer “Opportunity,” he drives home the idea that “everything you know will change.” A poignant and unexpected end tag echoes that notion as the album wraps.
These are the thoughts of a man not looking to the stars for answers, but rather looking at his earthly surroundings and within himself to determine if he’s even asking the right questions. John Calvin Abney is not just a brilliant songwriter and musician by craft. He uses his talents in a remarkable way, presenting personal abstractions in a tangible, pop-sensible format. The mold of Far Cries and Close Calls is familiar, but it is anything but commonplace.
Far Cries and Close Calls is out now on all platforms, including iTunes, Spotify, and Soundcloud. You can also pre-order a copy from the album’s soon to be issued limited edition denim blue vinyl. Head over to johncalvinabney.com to keep up with announcements, tour dates, and everything John Calvin.
This article was originally written for Cellar Door Music Group (cellardoormusicgroup.com). It is archived here with the publisher’s permission.
aka Jarvix, the Chief Executive Weirdo of Make Oklahoma Weirder. His out-of-the-box music coverage has been published by the Oklahoma Gazette, KOSU, and The Oklahoman among others. He also makes DIY music as a solo multi-instrumentalist live looper in his spare time.