A debut with Leave It to Believers

Cremains of the day
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  October 24, 2012

TEACHIN’ JOHNNY Truth in what Cremains.

Not every piece of music has to aspire to intellectual heights. Sometimes, an easy bit of pop is all you need.

I personally enjoy it, though, when I learn something from an album, and Johnny Cremains' debut full-length, Leave It to Believers, has introduced me to one Manly P. Hall, a deep thinker who began spreading his thoughts on boundaries of spirituality in the 1920s and died in 1990. As the title track — built on three separate rhythms on guitar, piano, and theremin — fades thirty seconds of piano getting more reverbed and everything basically crashing into static, we hear his voice bleed in to open "The Great Silence":

"Astronomy is the science of the anatomy of the universe . . ." — part of a nine-hour lectured titled "Astrotheology" you can find online.

I'm intrigued enough to see if I can track down a copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages, which sounds a bit like Carlos Castaneda before he got big. (Also, the guy appears to have been an early Kickstarter fan. Wiki tells me: "According to original subscription agreements on file at the Philosophical Research Society, editions were sold by subscription for $75 on a pre-publication basis.")

And that's the sort of rabbit hole you can find yourself in while listening to this disc, a piece that shares a dramatic flair with the Horror, the last band with which you likely saw pianist and songwriter Erik Winter and vocalist Sean Libby play (Libby plays guitar with Whitcomb now, as well). Libby's vocals mix Pink Floyd with Sam's Town-era Killers, ethereal at times, and others infused with sneering bravado. Winter likes melodic and hooky piano that gets vaudeville and Broadway sometimes.

With help from the likes of Watchers/Confusatron's Doug Porter on guitar, Loverless/AOK Suicide Forest's Mike Anderson on drums, and bass players with bona fides all over the local scene, the songwriting pair have crafted 12 tunes that tend longish to comprise a full hour of music that's sometimes maudlin, but generally keeps things interesting enough that the often downtempo pacing doesn't put you to sleep.

They actually stick some of the most upbeat stuff in the album's final third. "Dry Erase" features poppy staccato sections and one of Libby's easier deliveries to sing along with: "And so you get out your dry erase to remind me/Of a change of pace." Then "November's Coming Liar" is catchy and jaunty in the verse before dialing down into the chorus. Porter's guitar runs and jumps, playful and fun even within some thick goth trappings.

"Oak Island" intervenes as the penultimate tune, taking its time to develop over seven minutes into something where Libby is as lucid as anywhere on the disc — "Is your money there?" — and as distorted: At one point he employs a low-down growl.

But "Starkweather" is just the kind of album closer I was expecting, a look forward, something that sounds hopeful and willing to explore any and all possibilities. Libby's vocals are higher up, delicate, with Winter back-filling with organ to fluff the sound up into something more robust. The mid-song charge-up provides some of the most dynamic song structure on the album as a whole and there are times when things get almost '50s with straight-ahead, pounding pop chords on the piano.

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