You may not know Dante DeCaro by name, but you might know some his bands. First there was New-Wave British Columbians Hot Hot Heat, whom he left just as the band signed to a major label, and then after a brief chill-out period and a transcontinental journey he joined that pack of Montreal warble-rockers, Wolf Parade. It’s quite a resume, but it doesn’t do much to prepare you for the radically departed sound of his new outfit, Johnny and the Moon. This group of trashcan rattlin’, banjo pluckin’, acoustianados doesn’t bring any of the slickness or hipness of its Canadian counterparts, and as a result it may be the best thing Dante DeCaro has ever done.
Johnny and the Moon’s debut album is a brisk travelogue through a century of folk traditions and domestic, lo-fi expressions. The album begins with convention and slowly splinters into something much more scattered and unique, but earnest emotion is the scoliotic spine keeping this varied, surprising album assured and consistent. The record opens with “Green Rocky Road”, a traditional folk song, but when percussionist Lindy Gerrard enters the track midway the tune starts to breathe deeper, and dense moods start creeping in like a winter fog. Gerrard’s rhythms remain essential throughout the album; his strange patterns and jerky pacing give the album an urgent pulse that beautifully complement DeCaro’s plaintive, cryptic lyricism. Tonally, the album sounds like a bunch of neighborhood rascals who ran off with the goods from an Appalachian yard Sale and started testing them out in a hidden, shadowy barn. There’s plenty of trinket tinkering, and the songs could have easily imploded into amateur hour were it not for the beautiful chord changes and concise arrangements. Almost every song surprises with its brevity, but no track fades out before delivering at least one moment of touching tenderness.
Johnny and the Moon have created something remarkably charming and affecting, but it is by no means a masterwork, and that’s a good thing because such an achievement is probably still yet to come. Dante will have to continue to grow into this genre before his emotive, rustic pleas resonate to the bone; sometimes you know you’re involved in a gleeful process of exploration, experimentation, and historic romanticizing. This is most apparent when the indie-rock roots break through the country soil. On “Johnny and the Devil” Gerrard jumps into the song with an explosive cymbal crash and subsequent floor tom thunder roll that is strikingly similar to Animal Collective’s “Grass”, and the album closer “When I Die” has the same dark, twangy, death-obsessed feel as Lonesome Crowded West’s final cut, “Styrofoam Boots.” But although Johnny and the Moon have their points of reference just like everybody else, they’re merely contextual when you make a record as enjoyable as this. - David Schneider