Johanna Samuels Excelsior! is a set of bitter-sweet songs that explore “the nuances of friendships and the importance of meeting people in the middle, of being open to self-examination and change” and that expression of wanting to build bridges is perfectly complimented in the way the album melds the modern with the retro.
Excelsior! has a gentle propulsion to its 10 songs. From the opening track ‘Sonny’ we get basic drum machine, dampened bass and muted electric piano which opens out into acoustic drums and glorious close harmonies. A lot of the tracks eschew reverb and delay in favour of a dryer production, and this brings an intimacy to the recordings. It’s like you have been invited to sit in on a production rehearsal and the album was mostly recorded live to tape. Where the album excels is in how it captures the brightness and warmth of Johanna Samuels’ voice. There is some incredible musicianship on the album, from the precision and empathy of Sean Mullins’ drums, the exemplary harmonising of Garret Lang’s bass playing and Harrison Whitford on guitar who knows a chord or two and plays slide like a Jedi, but their playing forms the crucible in which Samuels creates gold with her voice. At one end of the vocal spectrum there’s grit on the super-catchy ‘Nature’s Way’ or ‘All is Fine’ and at the other end there’s the gentle reflection of ‘Cathy’ with its late-night solo piano accompaniment or ‘Julia’ where a touch of reverb adds to the languid, early-morning feel of Samuels trying to unlock the mysteries of the track’s namesake.
Johanna Samuels voice sounds like how I imagine Karen Carpenter’s would have had she lived; her voice a little more scuffed and worldly and with vapour trails of pop music dissipating in favour of a more mature sound. A bold claim you might think but check out ‘High Tide For One’ to see what I mean. It was also important to Samuels that the album be filled with other female voices. Given that the music industry is still a male-dominated environment where womxn are often “pitched against one another” Samuels wanted to create a special part of the record with womxn that she admired and had been supportive of her, so the voices of Courtney Marie Andrews, Hannah Cohen, Lomelda’s Hannah Read, A.O. Gerber, Louise Florence and Olivia Kaplan were brought in to create some incredible close harmonies.
Excelsior! is like Californian sunshine with dark clouds on the horizon that the music aims to dispel. As much as it’s like visiting a vintage shop and wanting to buy everything from the wind-up tin robot to the faded mirror promoting a long-defunct cigarette brand it is also like sliding into the chrome highlighted booth of a diner or driving out to the coast to enjoy a beer in a bar by the sea. Excelsior! would stand out as the coolest person in the group of people you’ve just been introduced to. But above all I have enjoyed inhabiting such an optimistic record, one with such a great message for these angry, partisan times: to avoid the pitfalls of who’s right and who’s wrong and try to find the common ground. And I would encourage you to read Johanna Samuels bio about the record.
Review by Paul F Cook