Not a new release but one that was new to Blabber’n’Smoke when we encountered Les Johnson at a house gig a few weeks ago (which you can read about here). We were very impressed by Johnson on the night, his baritone vocals and seam of dark humour impressive and both are present and correct on the 12 songs contained on 15 Hands, his debut album. Equally impressive are the settings for his songs, in the main delivered by The Shiverin’ Sheiks, a glorious time capsule of reverbed rockabilly, Cash like boom chicka boom and shimmering Tin Pan Alley melodrama with a hint of Joe Meek weirdness. Johnson croons and slowly burns his way through his set of songs with an easy authority equally at ease with the unabashed romanticism of Break Your Heart, a real tear jerker that sits up there with the best of Richard Hawley, the soul stirring country gospel of Beckon Me To The Light and the Celtic lilt of Sweet Promises.
For a man who says he never wrote a song until he was 46 Johnson certainly has a way with words, his more straightforward lyrics packed with arresting couplets such as the chorus on the stumblebum lament Small Time Big where he sings “Oh My Lord you made me your son, I got a god but you’re not the one. No, money is the one I want, ‘cos I ain’t got none, yet.” The aching ballad Someone Who Cares rivals Kris Kristofferson with its descriptions of a troubled man as Johnson sings, “And you can walk wide and slipslide but you still ain’t able to move. With the evil and deeds done to you, you got nothin to lose.” This version of Kristofferson of course would be overweight in a soiled gold lame suit searching for the searchlight in a seedy Vegas nightclub. Elsewhere Johnson’s dark humour is evident as on the title song’s tale of a cowboy’s love of his horse which may go beyond the platonic, at the very least he advises, “Don’t fuck with my baby, she’s fifteen hands.” The Morning After (The Night It All Came Down) is a homoerotic vision of comradeship in the face of adversity while Silver Suit complete with cheesy organ trimmings is an over the top obituary, Elvis in his cups, that celebrates a fallen idol whose showbiz career goes to pot when a man catches fire at the front of his house.
At his best Johnson reminds one of the garish karaoke weirdness of Dean Stockwell channelling Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet but we need to mention the most Scottish song contained here, the wonderful duet with Katie McArthur that is Dear Marvin. Here Johnson and McArthur inhabit George Jones and Tammy Wynette as played by Rab C Nesbitt and his wife Mary Doll, she singing “I’m gonna brain you Marvin” as she lists his defects, he, a Govan Zen master, accepting his fate.
A grand album then and if you’re quick off the mark you can catch Les Johnson tonight as he is appearing at Glasgow’s Broadcast, information here.