We’ve been given to wax nostalgically about the music of the ‘60s every so often on GoldenPlec, but not without good reason. Back then pop meant The Beatles and the Beach Boys, albums like ‘Pet Sounds’ that are still regarded as works of pure genius forty-plus years later.
Indie-rock singer-songwriter Johnny Rayge seems to share a fondness for the glory days of pop song writing too. What’s more, he makes a pretty good stab and recreating just that with his debut solo album ‘Vigil’. He comes close to pulling it off too. There is plenty to admire on ‘Vigil’, but a one or two missteps as well.
Rayge (formerly of the band ITO, who hit the charts in 2006 with Higher than the Sun) is the total antithesis of his surname, exuding a reassuring calm with his sweet, silky vocals and graceful, dreamy guitar work. Lead single Not Without You is evidence of Rayge’s gift for an ultra-catchy melody, and jumps out of the speakers with a delightfully animated acoustic guitar rhythm and a hummable, foot-tapping “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa” chorus.
Do What You Can, meanwhile, rolls with a restrained indie rock flow reminiscent of Coldplay when they were still writing good music, and suggests an album that will be a pleasurable, but unchallenging listening experience.
In a way this is a little deceptive. There is a whole lot of complexity and lyrical depth squeezed into ‘Vigil’. It weaves its way from summery pop ballads to slow-burning moments of introspection and melancholy piano chords.
The production that keeps everything flowing is top notch, but at times the mixes get a little cluttered with unnecessary excess. When all that is needed is an unaccompanied acoustic guitar and lead vocals – emphasising the best of Rayge’s definite talent – things get muddied with an overabundance of violins, keys and a choir of backing vocals.
This works well on the slow-building Need or Uncharted Sea, with instruments and backing vocals coming in one by one as the songs climb, whereas the same effect on Hold leaves the listener wondering if maybe a single guitar was all the song needed.
As ‘Vigil’ nears its end, Rayge brings out his biggest signwriting guns. Parisian Skies is the sound of wandering foreign streets contemplating the very nature of beauty and heartbreak. The pianos are delicate, cutting and poignant, and Rayge’s voice flows as softly as tears.
The album closes with another absolute gem of a tune, One More Time, which seems to pick up right where Parisian Skies ends, letting the various instruments work their way in on top the piano track, yet reaming subtle and unobtrusive, never allowing themselves to drown out a vocal that feels barely whispered and totally intimate, “Oh how I miss you and I want to kiss you, just one more time, for the road.”
The latter half of the album isn’t all gold however, as Love Making Love is easily the weakest thing on ‘Vigil,’ – a banal and unbearably cheery slice of forgettable pop. The chorus of “Most of all I love making love to you in the morning” is a little bit like watching a couple engaging in an overly-amorous public display of affection when you’ve just gone through a messy breakup. The biterwseetness that surrounds Love Making Love comes across far stronger, making it feel like an odd addition.
At its best ‘Vigil’ provides the kind of endlessly listenable aural joy that swells from the speakers of the radio on long summer evenings – with just enough clever complexity to keep it fresh on repeat listens, and at worst it’s this exact same thing that gets a little too much to bear. When it works it seems effortless, and when it doesn’t it seems like Rayge is trying a little bit too hard. But given all of that ‘Vigil’ is a strong debut from a talented writer and performer, and it bodes well for what’s still to come.