If one takes the proliferation of perfectly recorded music with liner notes as evidence of anything significant, the making and marketing of popular music would appear to be reaching ever greater heights of professionalism. In fact, the only things changing are the price tag and the technology. The essential creative issues of pop music remain the same as they were, and it's challenge stands untouched by time: How does one create three minutes of music, that somehow tweaks the soul and seems mysteriously in sync with the most private dreams and longings?

On 12 in a room, Mark Johnson offers an able demonstration of ho it's done. An East Coast songwriter who's been kicking around New York for more than a few years, Johnson's written songs for the Roches and Dave Edmunds, but apparently that didn't convince anybody to give him a record deal- he made this album at home and released it himself. However, it's hard to imagine how a fat budget might've improved his music- it feels flawlessly performed as is. That's hard to explain too.

Because Johnson isn't a particularly distinctive vocalist and his influences are fairly predictable (he travels a road paved by Buddy Holly, Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, The Beatles and Todd Rundgren). And yet using the most modest of means- a true heart and an ear for rhyme- he manages to build the perfect love shack.
Johnson's central theme is, of course, the finding and keeping of love. And he chronicles this quest with a song cycle that goes through wild mood swings. Beginning with an upbeat pledge of devotion called "Earn That Love," the record traverses romantic ecstasy (the transcendently beautiful "Love Radiates Around"), lust (Through the Void), sadness (When a Heart Breaks Down") and utter despair (Desperate," "Cold Weather
"). Johnson wraps up the record with "Little Cricket," an ineffably sweet number that presents love as a force lurking in the brushes and the thickets. Waiting to pounce on those alert to its warning sounds and sighs. Like "Love Radiates Around"- a model pop song-"Little Cricket" expresses a yearning so universal and pure that it feels like a hymn.

Throughout the album, the persona that coalesces around the narrator is that of a sensitive shy guy, earnest, idealist, eccentric and oddly determined. Pop music has served as a haven for these oddball types for decades, but it's been a while since one of them became a full-fledged star-it would be surprising if Johnson were to buck that trend, too. Solidly built though his music is, it is nonetheless subtle-fragile even-when measured against the big, beefy beat currently dominating the charts. Johnson's probably aware of that (bigger stars than he couldn't score hits with his fine material), and that gives his music, which was clearly created with little consideration for the marketplace, an added poignancy. This is a record you'll have to work a bit to find, but it's worth the effort. Mark Johnson's songs linger in the mind like a haunting dream of an old flame.      -
Kristine McKenna

Mark at 'The Jangly Joint' on Cornelia Street
Photo by Anita Walsh

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