Tried and true: Dwight Howard Johnson rides an irresistible formula

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Dwight Howard Johnson’s (Tom Daly, Greg Sloan, Drew Carroll) long-awaited, inaugural recording is full of punchy pop hooks perfect for your summer playlist. Photo by Tom Daly. Dwight Howard Johnson’s (Tom Daly, Greg Sloan, Drew Carroll) long-awaited, inaugural recording is full of punchy pop hooks perfect for your summer playlist. Photo by Tom Daly.

The pun-named Dwight Howard Johnson is neither a hotel chain nor a center for the Lakers, but rather a Charlottesville band. It plays appealing and charming pop rock, drawn from the timeless well of all pop rock bands, while reminding one of the 1990s, when such pop music was actually popular.

The most obvious comparison here is to Weezer—the early, good Weezer albums, thankfully—but there’s also stray bits of the Exploding Hearts, Blur, and perhaps even a dash of Elvis Costello at his most energetic. The guitar parts are distorted but the vocals are squeaky-clean, and while the dynamic between catchy love songs and exuberant punk energy is hardly an original formula, it’s one that’s endured throughout the decades because it’s so often successful.

Strident, earnest proclamations are a sure-fire road to immediate listener irritation for a great many songwriters of this stripe, but Drew Carroll has the taste and talent to avoid their pitfalls, keeping his boyish voice in check with some mild sarcasm and, more importantly, a great ear for catchy pop hooks, all of which are effortlessly carried across by the band’s breezy energy and momentum and balanced by just enough grit to keep things anchored.

The rhythm section, drummer Greg Sloan and bassist Tom Daly, fit just right—not too sharp, not too sloppy—and propulsive enough to give Carroll’s songs momentum. What they lack in subtlety they make up for with enthusiasm, and their angular energy goes a long way towards holding the songs together; the occasional awkward bridge or overreaching moment is quickly forgotten as the songs charge forward, dropping hooks left and right. Most clock in around the three minute mark.

A year and a half after forming, and gradually winning the hearts of local rockers, Carroll, Daly, and Sloan have completed their debut album, Take Anything (issued by local WarHen Records). It’s the best type of home-recorded pop/rock album. Totally professional and clean, but still appealingly homemade, a labor of love rather than an overbearingly polished commercial product, it could easily be the effort of a small professional studio.

Much of the material here isn’t particularly memorable on paper, but the delivery sells it. “Want Me Close” even pulls off a chorus of “bomp-a-bomps” and handclaps, for the many of us who had forgotten how good that sounds when paired with Ramones-style buzzsaw-guitar riffs. “Right to Sleep” isn’t a great song because it calls out the hypocrisies of adult life, it’s great because it’s reminiscent of generations of songs on the same theme, and it will be stuck in your head for weeks.

There are perhaps reasonable reservations to be had, but they become largely irrelevant as the riffs and hooks come too fast to allow any feelings of doubt to settle in. The questionably titled “Baby it’s All Good” is the riskiest reach here, halving the tempo and taking time to wander before building to the blowout chorus that redeems it. “Expected Results” and “Away from Me” are high points, and although they’re the album’s longest tracks, they feel like the shortest. The entire record barely breaks half an hour, and the brisk sugar rush will hold on repeat listens, especially as the hot summer weather approaches.

Dwight Howard Johnson isn’t re-inventing the wheel, or doing anything you haven’t heard before, but it’s a fun, memorably talented, ass-kicking pop-rock band that lives in your home town, and it’s well worth hearing the show and buying the album. You can do both on Friday, June 28 at the Southern. Weird Mob and Challenger open. The music starts at 9pm and the tickets are $8-10 and $20 for a ticket/record combo.

Hand to mouth

Fellow notable rockers Invisible Hand are still at work on their next proper full-length, but spring cleaning in the archives has produced enough material for a teaser cassette-only release on Harrisonburg’s Funny/Not Funny label. The title Squirrel Jail paired with a grainy headshot of one of its tour mates in the Naked Gods (who the Hand have nicknamed Squirrel) gives an appropriate indication of the seriousness of this release, but the Hand has always been a band of diverse tastes, interests, and influences, and this warts-and-all odds-and-sods reveals many facets of its musical character that would remain well-hidden if one were to judge only by its proper material.

Most notable here is the inclusion of “A Song Called Krautrock,” the band’s ever-shifting standard set closer, in which it stretches its legs, allowing a noisy, sprawling jam over several minutes of propulsive grooves, before eventually returning to a killer bridge and chorus.

The strangest cut—though also a highlight—is “Prince Bolan Returns from Battle.” Reportedly inspired by the band’s mutual love of Steely Dan (an influence impossible to trace from their concerts, but unavoidable in their tour van), the squeaky-clean keyboard-funk groover actually sounds closer to interstitial music from a lost Blaxploitation flick. The “joke” eventually pays off, though, as not only is the beat an infectious one, but the eventual bridge, once it appears is actually one of the finer ones Smith has penned.

There are other gems as well: “Pigeons” is one of their most direct and amusing would-be singles, beginning with the classic couplet “I’m not homeless / if I’m on your couch,” and jogging forward into a catchy ’60s-psych pastiche. “Everything’s Fair Game” is totally different from its live form. Instead of nervous raw energy, it’s been slowed to a mid-tempo, shoe-gazing bit of dream-rock. The next track, “Wounded Eels,” overcompensates with 45 seconds of Boredoms-esque punk incoherence.

While the Hand’s previous cassette compilation, Sinister Hand, remains its finest offering to date, Squirrel Jail is comparatively inessential. Practice takes and overdubbed demos of recently released material like “Eating Out,” “Call Me Ishmael,” and “Bleach Bums,” are mixed with rough versions of prospective forthcoming album cuts like “Smile,” “Lies,” and “Flange.” The edits are sloppy, the overdubs are rough, and the diamonds are mixed in with the coals, but the tape nevertheless provides a bigger picture of a fascinating band, and with 20 songs on two sides, it contains enough material to keep its most ardent followers in the loop until the next album drops.

 

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