So well written that every song could be a short story, a treat for lovers of narrative-driven tales.
‘Americana Comics’ is a title that conjures up interesting imagery, and that’s just what New York born John John Brown was aiming for: realising that the songs he was putting together for this album were strongly character-driven – and having worked on a series of songs related to the story of photographs in the past – he decided to bravely add comic book art into the mix, enlisting a talented artist named Sapri to tackle the drawing of the stories Brown wanted to tell. The songs in question were mostly written during a period Brown spent living in Florida, and anyone who had heard much about that state (see the ‘Florida Man’ meme from a few years back) will know of the stories that will likely come from time spent there.
“On Black Friday at the Walmart I met Jesus,” sings Brown on the opening line of the opening track, hitting us head on with the unique contrast as a commercial of an American icon you might find in Walmart and of one of the most sacred icons in Jesus. “I know the doctors all call me schizophrenic / My brain is broke what I see ain’t authentic,” Brown continues on this sad tale of mental illness. The relaxed guitar and raspy singing style evokes the likes of John Prine and Tom Petty, and those two late, great icons get a name check on this track.
‘Where the Good Buzz’ goes is another song from the perspective of a man, this time an ex-Vietnam vet whose time serving in the army has left him with more than just physical wounds (“He’s pretty sure the moment he went crazy / Is when he gunned that Vietnamese family / They came outta nowhere on a mud path / Pulled that trigger couldn’t take it back”), and left with nothing, he’s turned to alcohol to numb the pain. ‘Graduation Day’ is a sombre duet that mourns a death due to a tragic accident on the titular day.
‘Mary’ is a dark tale of a woman who has suffered from violence and longs for freedom. The timber of Brown’s voice is never more effective than when expressing such heavy emotions: “Now Mama’s got a new man / With the same look in his eyes / Whiskey in the kitchen / Mary’ll kill ‘em if he tries this time,” he warns. ‘The Armadillo Song’ is a short and charming ditty that gives you what it says on the tin: a song about an armadillo; it’s a nice bit of light relief sandwiched in between the rest of material on the album.
The intriguing titled ‘Yossi the Balloon Man’ tells the heartbreaking story of a man who faced time in a concentration camp as a child, and how he is trying to carry on living his life in the wake of such a tragedy (“The high rollers in this town / They just see an old clown / As the ferris wheel goes round and round / While Yossi’s in his mind beneath an Auschwitz sky”). ‘Big Old Beard’ is the final track and it’s a fun one, lifting the mood with the upbeat tale of a centenarian and his wife (who are 104 and 109 respectively) and how happy they are living a simple life; “Hot cakes on the griddle / With syrup in the middle / Ain’t this a beautiful life,” Brown tells us joyfully.
As with his previous series of songs based around photos, Brown was hoping to bring the stories from ‘Americana Comics’ to life in a live setting, using multimedia techniques – featuring either projected images or large printouts – something that Covid-19 sadly put on hold. Let’s hope Brown’s shows can go ahead soon however, because they’re something anyone who enjoyed this narrative rich album would be more than eager to experience to appreciate these songs in their full glory.