“Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe” is the first new album of the decade that I’ve listened to in its entirety, and it’s set the bar pretty high as for what I’m expecting out of new releases this year. Theo Katzman, one of the founding members of the mega-hit, internet sensation Vulfpeck may not (yet) be well-known for his solo music, and that’s even more reason one might want to start listening to him now while ticket prices are still cheap.
He’s described his voice as the result of what happens to when you listen to Fleetwood Mac too much as a kid and end up trying to make your voice sound like Stevie Nicks (who he had thought was just a dude with a really high-pitched voice). The result is a silky-smooth falsetto that’s got just a touch of bad boy roughness. When I played this album for my parents over the weekend, they told me he reminded them of a young Michael Jackson, and that listening to Theo’s voice brought a tear to their eyes. I guess there’s hope for modern music after all.
Theo has made it painfully clear in his previous album Heartbreak Hits that he has gone through his fair share of shit and heartache. This album is no different in conveying those feelings – In fact, I’d argue that there are more songs on this album that pluck at the heart strings than the last one. If I were to speculate, I’d suggest that these two albums feel like Theo progressively working through his complicated feelings. It’s an interesting transition to experience, especially when you listen to both albums back-to-back as I did over the weekend.
As far as the genre for Modern Johnny Sings, Theo seems to have taken more of a singer-songwriter focus for most of the songs, as opposed to the more blues-rock-funk focus of his last album. There are much more acoustic and singer-songwriter tracks present. These seem to emphasize Theo’s ability to create a story with his lyric and song composition, much like he did with Heartbreak Hits. I enjoyed listening back to the album a few times afterwards just to focus on the lyrics, which is not something I would typically do. There’s a lot of pain present in his voice, yet he manages to keep it silky-smooth. The most notable songs in this regard are 100 Years from Now, What Did You Mean (When You Said Love), Darlin’ don’t Be Late, and Fog in the Mirror. I understand that this makes the album seem as if it’s purely intended for sappy and hopeless romantics, but there is a lot of impressive musicianship present in the songs that would appeal to even those who aren’t as in touch with their softer side.
Theo does manage to take some creative liberties with the album and throws in a few tracks that deviate from the singer-songwriter path, much like Allen Stone’s latest album which I reviewed late last year. The tracks You Could Be President, (I Don’t Want to Be A) Billionaire, and The Death of Us feel like some old school rock with a little bit of funk sprinkled in for good measure. Compared to the softer stuff you’ll find throughout the album; these songs are much more heavy-hitting and might take you by surprise. They’re angsty, playful, and a little poppy. The Death of Us specifically sounds like something I’d hear from a Fleetwood Mac album, which may be one of the highest compliments I could give a modern artist. If you’re reading this, Theo, I’m sure Stevie would be impressed (if she hasn’t already heard your music yet).
Overall, Theo Katzman’s latest album is an incredibly strong start to a new decade of music. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the album in its entirety, but I feel as though The Death of Us, What Did You Mean (When You Said Love), Lily of Casablanca, and (I Don’t Want to Be A Billionaire) best represent the feel of the album and are my personal favorites. Thanks for a great album, Theo, and I hope to see you on the road this year.
Modern Johnny Sings: Songs in the Age of Vibe gets a 4.5/5 from me.