Donald Wayne Johnson,
Half a Heart
(First Hand Dude, 2002)

Half a Heart opens with a jouncing, jolting, unexpected ride over unpaved emotions with "One More Day." One line in and I was grinning, carried along by smooth guitar work and Donald Wayne Johnson's rough, heartfelt voice. His voice really is the defining sound of the album, able to growl and sigh at once, melodic enough to be sweet without sounding canned or refined.

Even the soft ballads that dominate the album can't smooth off all his delightful edges. "The Promise" and "I've Gotta Love" stagger between affecting and maudlin. Johnson is if anything more emotive in these songs, but smoothes out his wonderfully rough delivery with a corresponding loss of force and drive in the songs. Even more relaxed guitar, and percussion that sounds like nothing so much as a drum machine, help sap the emotional reality from most of the ballads. Johnson can do ballads well; "Back in the Mainstream" is textured and interesting, as the smooth instrumentals turn to a plodding, properly wearing beat. This take on the modern working class is observant and honest, and much more compelling than the generic romantic dreaming of "What the World Means To Me." "Mainstream" even goes a fair way towards balancing out "Who'll Go to Bat for Baby Ruth," a painfully sappy song that seems built just for the titular word play. It also features Johnson's weakest, most tentative vocal performance, a bad choice for a song about something as powerful as child abandonment. All that said, it's a distressingly catchy tune that will work its way into the song archives of your brain. Be warned.

But the punchier tracks redeem the album and let Johnson shine. The hyperbolic tale of the supertough "Wild Woods Man," told in a rasp over spare, bluesy guitar and a rattlesnake hiss of woodwinds, is fun to hear and visualize, a musical tall tale with plenty of attitude. "Half a Heart" treads the familiar grounds of heartbreak, but with a hopeful twist and a self-assurance that gives the old subject a new shine. Johnson sounds more relaxed on these wild songs, without the restraint that weakens his voice in some of the ballads. Even the rare sound of Johnson's full voice in the ballads gives them an affecting companionable feel. At full throttle, it's a bit intoxicating, leading to sing alongs and air mikes, and other dramas perhaps best not inflicted on formal company.

But informal company can always be properly impressed by the last track, an extended version of the thoughtful "Back in the Mainstream." Well written though it is, "Mainstream" can't help being a bit intrusive when it takes up so much space. Half a Heart is only a nine-track album, and two versions of the same song serve as a reminder of the sad fact that there's just not enough Johnson here. Hopefully he'll soon remedy that. Updates, along with some amusing backporch rambling, can be found on his website. Until then, Half a Heart will have to be enough.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 12 July 2003

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