Greg Johnson: Secret Weapon (JMA)

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Greg Johnson: No Weapons in the Bar
Greg Johnson: Secret Weapon (JMA)

That Greg Johnson seeded funding for this album by a pre-order subscription shows he has a loyal audience in this country – especially as he hasn't lived here for almost a decade and he's getting close to 10 albums under his own name, not counting a couple of best of/hits packages.

In part that's because he's an endearing and often amusing entertainer whose shows are always worth catching for their often loose direction. But more its a testament to the strength of his songwriting.

Those gifts haven't deserted him on Secret Weapon although there is more melancholy evident in these lyrics: relationships are harder; the rock rebels of yesteryear are now ghosts; people on the street are damaged or give him the finger; “there goes another year”; and even if this is the good life he still wonders if the party might be better in another hotel . . .

For a man who once titled an album Here Comes the Caviar you feel maybe the drinks tray is passing him by. The excellent final track however shows how Johnson can twist a lyric on a line: No Weapons in the Bar is a world-weary litany of signs he reads – but the last brings a smile: “Please don't give drinks to the band”.

The band here – recorded in Johnson's home studio in LA – features longtime friends Ted Brown (guitar) and Boh Runga (backing vocals on Admit You've Changed), guitarist Ben King (on the multi-layered narrative of the terrific Maori King) and various Stateside compadres.

Because of that melancholy character and the lack of an immediate killer single, Secret Weapon doesn't give itself up as easily as previous Johnson albums, but on repeat-play there are treasures here: Another Rainy Day is a delightful, string-enhanced piano ballad, there's a good punch-line on the catchy wishful-thinking Royal Me, and songs like Faded Book and the dark 70s pop of The Way I Feel reward on multiple listenings.

And Johnson still writes a chorus or melody which hooks like a gaff: Old Revolutions; Indian Summer with its wheezy harmonica; the Tex-Mex handclap of Running Water . . .

So, not a stone-cold winner – but Johnson always a man with something wry to say, and the melody to deliver it.

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