Greg Johnson – Covers The Masters – Album Review
Coming out officially this June 18th, proudly presented by Starburst Records, you’ll be able to check out a lineup filled with stellar cover tunes from the musical perspective and style of Greg Johnson when he releases Greg Johnson Covers The Masters this year…and for those of you out there looking for some laidback summer vibes you know you can relax with & rely on, this might just be the thing that you’re looking for in 2021.
“Because” was an excellent choice to start the record up and gives you an instant glimpse into the mix of beautiful tones and range of Greg’s vocals – almost displayed more in a Queen-esque style than the Beatles with its a cappella method. BOLD beginning really…even though of course, it’s about as gentle & delicate as you can be in a bold moment…but you get what I mean – right off the drop here at the very start, Greg’s put himself straight into the center of the spotlight, naked as a jaybird, leaving us with nothing else to be judged upon but the bare-bones of his vocals…let’s not deny the fact that comes along with a whole lot of risk, because it definitely does. That being said, track one of just about every record always comes along with a grain of salt willingly pinched in by the listeners themselves…we’re accustomed to the fact that we might get an intro-style tune at the beginning of an experience, and in many ways I suppose you could argue that’s the effect of “Because” in context of this lineup. It’s far removed from the simplicity of a typical intro, don’t get me wrong – we’ve still got a song here – and in my personal opinion, I think the risk here reaped the rewards – this is an excellent cover and it instantly makes an impression on us. Whether it’s the pure nakedness of the vocals, the immaculate melody in the layers of Greg’s voice that prove you don’t need an ounce of music surrounding the guy for him to still make magic for ya, or the classic songwriting of the Beatles…I think fans of the original would be really pleased to hear the spin he’s put on this song & how it still preserves its essential mix of curious sound & fantasy combined, and appreciate the fact he’s gone so far out on a limb at the very beginning of his record full of covers. Definitely a tune that’s well within his wheelhouse, you can hear the art & craft at work here in how Greg has approached “Because” – it’s a highly enticing start, no doubt about it.
If I’m being 100% honest with ya as I always am…I was never completely sure about Judy Garland’s timeless classic “Over The Rainbow” – though I’ll admit, being raised on this song like so many of us, that factors in & definitely plays a role in providing the endearing sweetness we’d all be looking for. To start, it’s a much more nuanced song to sing & more complex than most people realize until they make that move to sing it themselves. All-in-all, it’d be tough to take any real points away here…ultimately Johnson’s still on target when it comes to his tone…and admittedly, his version is still loaded up with that daydreamy, charming sound we’re looking for. The music is on-point & all that…you’ll find that’s the case with every tune on this record, it’s all well played and smooth, relaxing, and laidback. I do think there’s an element of this particular cut bringing us right to the edge of Johnson’s range as a vocalist however…like I said, he doesn’t end up falling off the side into clashing tones, but as listeners, we can hear him reach the very pinnacle of what he can do at the top of his scale…and it kinda has us on pins & needles hoping he’ll make it. He does…but it also feels like it was the closest of calls, trading a bit of the power in his voice & confidence in the process of maintaining the melody…but credit where credit is due, he’s still on target. I suppose it’s the difference between a song like “Over The Rainbow” and the majority of the material you’ll hear that follows that gets a much more organic & naturally expressive sound out of Greg that suits him stronger is all. Not a bad job here on this classic cut so much as there are plenty of examples in this set-list that feature Johnson’s vocals in a much more comfortable light.
It’s allllllllllllmost a little tough not to accuse this dude of cheatin’ just a little! I mean, he hasn’t just selected a bunch of fantastic artists & legendary bands to cover – he’s also chosen many of their most recognized & well-known hits. In some ways, of course that’s to his advantage – you hear a song like “Brown Eyed Girl,” and while no one out there on earth is ever gonna be Van, you can’t help but fall in love with this version almost just as much, because that’s the true effect of great songwriting – it becomes universally adaptable to multiple styles & sounds, and thrives in them all more or less equally when it comes right down to it. While songs like this one might give him an easier pass with the court of public opinion in that sense – make no mistake, taking on the mammoth hit singles he’s chosen also puts Greg right up against the wall in covering such beloved material that’s tried, tested, and true. Each time, he’s gotta bring his A-game to avoid that instant grumble from someone in the back of the crowd mumbling faux-wisdom like “the original is always better” – and the vast majority of this record speaks strongly on behalf of Johnson doing exactly that. The pressure is on, no matter how laidback he might seem – that’s just the nature of the cover song – but he’s risen to the occasion time & again and put out versions of these classics he can proudly stand behind, with “Brown Eyed Girl” certainly included in that. With the natural ease of his performance on this Van Morrison fan-favorite, it’s like Johnson feels no pressure whatsoever, and as a result, he pulls this cover off with his authentically endearing approach.
I think there are songs that are really well suited to Greg’s vocals, and “Yesterday” would be among them…I ended up digging on his take on the classic Beatles tune quite a bit. It’s a really impressively sweet version, and the trumpet becomes a spectacular addition to Johnson’s variation. Like, for real – it’s CLOSE to stealing the show here…but let’s be real, everything stacks up to a very solid win for Greg on “Yesterday” – he’s captured all the magic & more here, delivering a genuinely soulful performance that reflects some of his very best on this record without question. From the gentle piano to the sweet strum of the guitar & pluck of the stand-up bass…percussion set so far into the mix you hardly even realize the beat is there…absolutely stellar trumpet…stunning vocals…I gotta say, I think Johnson was right on target here in every way. I think what really pays off for Greg when it comes to “Yesterday” is the sheer balance between the strengths in the music surrounding him and the vocals he’s singin’ for us – I love it when you hear a song like this and it’s so much harder to cite any one aspect of what you love more than another…that’s always an indication of that elusive balance so many artists/bands strive for. Greg’s locked onto that perfectly here, giving “Yesterday” a slow, jazzy influence on the sound to go along with its classic songwriting…he’s provided this version with new depth and dimension that works.
“Wild Horses” is another excellent track for Johnson’s natural sound – I felt like a lot of people out there that are looking for that middle ground between the version they know & love and a brand-new one will really appreciate the way he’s covered this tune by The Rolling Stones. Not to dwell on the point, but I suppose this was the point I was making earlier on in talking about “Over The Rainbow” – “Wild Horses” has the opposite effect when we listen…we can hear that this is a song extremely well-suited to Greg’s vocals, and a song that we can tell he clearly connects to through the humble sincerity in the way he sings it. That make any sense to y’all out there? These words of mine are probably a bit confusing just to read’em here in-print…but when you listen, you’ll likely hear what I mean. Like all covers, we’ve got some where we’re the perfect candidate to play the part – and there are others that we simply WANT to do, because the songs are truly special & we respect’em as artists & musicians. “Wild Horses” to me, with its brilliantly played, delicate & dreamy vibes, gives Greg a chance to reveal that real connection he has to the material he’s singing…I think he gets that dusty & down-to-earth vibe in this Rolling Stones tune nailed pretty tightly here…this is the kind of song where rounding out each and every corner would almost be a disservice to the original, and he’s played this correctly by just letting his vocals be what they are without trying to force anything too much, you feel me? “Wild Horses” is built on the wry wisdom & realization that love is stronger than steel…but it’s always been a reflective vibe that seems to contemplate this all in real time…that was what was important to preserve, and Johnson has done that.
As I’ve told ya many times on these pages of ours…one way or the other, it’s hard to please everyone all at once. There are examples of cuts like “Wild Horses” where I really like how faithful Greg’s version will be – and others like his variation on “California Dreamin’” that end up standing out even more to me as a result of how ambitious the changes are in the music, even as subtle as they appear. For some out there, it’ll be the opposite effect…again, that’s the natural effect of covering any song out there – but what’s exceptionally wonderful & rewarding about that, is that it gets people talking about what ya did. It can be polarizing…it can bring about epic debates…both of these things are much preferable to indifference, wouldn’t ya say? There’s more than enough of Greg in any of these songs to understand what he brings to these covers…and in that sense, he’s still judged on the merits of his own organic talent, you following me? Doesn’t matter who wrote’em – you know what Johnson provides your ears with beyond the writing – that’s what I’m saying. That being said, it’s quite often cuts like “Because,” “Yesterday,” and tracks like “California Dreamin’” that tend to stand out that ten-percent more to us when we listen because of the more decisive changes he’ll make to the sound or style – and again, I felt like he got a lot of miles out of what he’s done with this timeless cut from the Mamas & Papas. While it’s definitely one of those cuts that’s extremely hard to fully duplicate the spine-tingling magic of the original, I fully enjoyed the clarity & space in Greg’s version. Fantastic percussion in this tune and instrumentation surrounding it…I was a bit indifferent on the flute perhaps, but the rest of it I felt like I didn’t JUST like, I loved. It’s a unique version of this mega-hit when it comes right down to it…and chances are, it might become one of those polarizing moments & debated spots on Johnson’s record – but like I always say, that’s a good thing. You want the people talking, and Greg’s given us plenty to consider here in this variation of “California Dreamin’” – he’s done himself proud with his performance.
I do run into these cover-style records every so often, and the results for me on a personal level are almost always the same in the sense that, the less I know the song, the more apt I am to really dig what I hear…and usually that’s just because it becomes even more like an all-new experience. It’s more of a rarity here on a record that’s lined with such enormously well-known tunes, but there’s always at least a couple that have escaped me more than others – like “Missing You” by John Waite – how did this gem elude me before? What a magnificent song – and what a fantastic job Greg Johnson has done with it! If I’m giving you MY perspective on what I hear throughout this album – I’d be pretty much hands-down in favor of telling you that “Missing You” is THE most significant highlight on this entire record – to my ears, for my money, you can’t beat the performance you get from Greg on this tune. From the lead to the background, he’s on target like Robin Hood splitting the arrow here…the warm glow of the synth and the low-end vibes of this song swell around him, providing even more of an uplifting spark to the entire sound that feels every bit as inspired as it does epic. Absolutely love the piano at the core of the melody in the music and the glow of the gentle strings surrounding it…Greg gets an extremely emotional & driven performance out of himself here – it FEELS like HE feels this moment, and gets right to the very heart of it without compromise. There’s not a doubt in my mind that there are other candidates on this record full of cover tunes that the majority of the masses will recognize and connect with immediately – but “Missing You” is my pick for the ol’ unsung hero – this is the song that convinces you Greg belongs in the spotlight making music & an all-around fantastic track that’ll keep us coming back for another spin.
“Let’s Stay Together” would likely fall closely to how I felt about “Brown Eyed Girl” earlier on – this is really one of those can’t-lose songs…the natural charm & appeal of this legendary hit is absolutely universal and welcome at all times, by me, you, and everyone we all know…Al Green nailed this song, and Johnson puts in a stellar performance, giving it a unique, isolated and intimate, humble sound. You feel like you got to sit right in the room with Greg on “Let’s Stay Together” and dropped right in at the perfect time to witness him doing what he does without him realizing we’re there – like we get to see him in his natural habitat without disturbing him. There are a few similarities in between how I felt about how he sang “Over The Rainbow” earlier on and how he sings this song when he heads towards the top of his range, but you really gotta understand the difference the approach can make in singing a song to fully know why things are the way they are. You’ll notice the difference immediately in the way he sings the following Beatles cover…it’s night & day in the sense that you feel like a song like “Let’s Stay Together” is recorded in the middle of the night as to not disturb the neighbors, and “Across The Universe” coming up was recorded in the daytime where you can be a bit louder & put more power into the vocals without fear of getting ye olde noise complaints. Not that anyone out there is gonna call the cops on Greg if they heard his music floating out the windows of his home studio…there’s a much more likely chance of them heading back home to get a lawnchair so they can sit outside his house & listen in comfort. It’s just different methods, different approaches, different styles, and different ways to communicate the melody through the music is all…some seem a bit more confident than others, and some seem like “Let’s Stay Together” where we’ve caught Greg in his most natural state, not really worrying too much about the whole pass or fail of it all, just singing and playing with his organic charm.
Is the pre-chorus of “Across The Universe” like…I mean…is it made of actual words, or from another language, or is it a feeling, or is it both, or something else entirely? Honestly, I’ve always wondered the answer to that…almost been afraid to look it up ever officially for that very reason…and of course, faithful to the original, I still have no idea what’s actually being said in the pre-chorus of this tune here in this cover…it’s one of the most essential hooks in the song, and Greg does an excellent job with it in his version. I’ll be real with ya, he’s giving it all more pronunciation and all us listening a better shot of hearing what’s being said there, and I still have no clue as to what’s being sung…I never have, and I might never know…it’s one of those mysteries I let continue on in music for myself personally, simply for the reason that I feel like it’s also one of those spots in music that proves you don’t need to know exactly what’s being said for the melody to connect straight to the heartstrings and genuinely move us. To me, it’s always been a feeling…as in, if you were to ride along with me in a car and I was to start singing “Across The Universe” and I got to that pre-chorus hook…quite honestly, you’d probably hear something different from me every single time I’d sing it, because I have no clue what those words are – but you would still connect with the melody itself – that make sense? I felt like Greg gives us a closer glimpse at what they might be more than most versions of this song afford…but it’s still not a fully discernable moment word-for-word so much as a moment we feel inside our soul as he sings it…to me, that’s what getting to the core of a successful cover of “Across The Universe” would really be about, so great job Johnson – the mystery I love is still unsolved (and Un-Googled, for now…), and as for the rest of it, he’s got all the right endearing qualities where they should be on this cover of the Beatles’ classic. It’s a strong & confident performance from Greg that keeps the mesmerizing & hypnotic qualities of this song fully intact, and as a result, he’s got a gentle but highly engaging cover that is bound to impress.
Greg Johnson Covers The Masters concludes with a version of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which to me, ended the album as cleverly as it began with the song selection & brought out yet another one of the best performances you’ll find from Johnson on this entire record. And if that’s not the kind of notes you wanna go out on folks…well…I’m not sure what else could be. Chances are, somewhere in my upbringing I was exposed to tunes like “Missing You” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” at some point…I’m much more familiar with the music of James Taylor as I am John Waite, but this was another track I didn’t instantly recognize. While I’d hazard a guess based on its laidback style that it’s not too far removed from the Taylor original, you do get that low-key jazzy-influence of how Greg does what he does so well making its presence felt in this cover version without question. Quaint, pleasant, and wonderfully well-played & sung…”Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” brings out the natural charm of Greg Johnson one last time to be enjoyed for now, complete with the smooth sounds of the saxophone alongside him. It’s a delicate final moment that makes a memorable impact, and delivers ya some of Johnson’s most soulful & endearing vocal melodies to finish this experience off with true style.
Find out more about the music of Greg Johnson and stay up to-date on the details surrounding the upcoming release of Greg Johnson Covers The Masters this June 18th – hit up his official label at Starburst Records and get more information from: https://www.starburstrecords.com
This album is now available for Pre-Order exclusively at: https://starburstrecords.bandcamp.com
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