Personal reflections and big vocals from Phoenix-based songwriter
Johnny Ironsights is a Phoenix based artist who describes himself as “punk-roots alt-country” and if that’s not enough genres rolled together for you, his publicity also throws “gothic-country” into the mix. Those descriptions may well have some readers clicking straight to the next review in search of a new Gram Parsons or Emmylou Harris – but don’t be too hasty, there is more to Johnny Ironsights than his own PR might suggest.
The album begins with the strong title track ‘Murder Mountain’. The song refers to an area of Humboldt County, California which is notorious for cannabis cultivation, criminal gangs and serious crime. It opens up with a fairly standard country-rock sound, twangy guitar overlaid with pedal steel. Ironsights then comes in with his forceful and dominant semi-spoken vocal. The song turns out to be the album’s highpoint as subsequent songs offer differing foundations for Ironsight’s powerful words and vocals, without ever really adding too much to them. The very next track is a case in point, it sees a snare driven acceleration of pace. ‘Fertile Reign of Juarez’ rattles along like an interstate train, Ironside this time employing a slightly more tuneful use of his sonorous vocal. However, the vocal is so far forward that it is sometimes in danger of rendering the music as incidental.
The album covers a range of largely personal themes: childhood, first love and heartbreak in a thoughtful and reflective way that avoids formulaic cliché, but Ironsight’s big vocal sound and the swirl of a pedal steel are constants. ‘Ghost of Orson Wells’ is a slower, gently strummed lament where the limitations of Ironsight’s voice are somewhat exposed. He is far more comfortable with the more straightforward rockers like ‘Closed Curtains’ or ‘We Are the Cold’.
‘Murder Mountain’ has a lot to offer, despite some obvious flaws. Ironsight’s voice is limited and rather one-dimensional. The pedal steel is overused to the point of irritation. However, these shortcomings are counterbalanced by some strong songwriting, fused with palpable and heartfelt emotion. The record is well worth a listen and far is more ‘country’ than it is ‘punk’, which is merely an observation, rather than either an endorsement or a criticism.