Review Summary: Grace And The Bigger Picture moves with such frightening precision and pace that it's almost a challenge to keep up, but sees Johnny Foreigner expand their horizons and craft another near-masterpiece.
If 2009 comes to a close without Johnny Foreigner finding their way into a considerable number of music libraries, I will lose all the faith I never had in my generation's indie leanings. It's very rare that a debut as confident and critically acclaimed as 2008's Waited Up 'Til It Was Light goes so quietly, although that's hardly an appropriate turn of phrase in the context of this Birmingham-based indie-rock (noise-pop? indie-punk?) trio. Fans of self-described fight-pop band Dananananaykroyd or indie-pop outfit Los Campesinos! should listen in; it's about to get messy, and Johnny Foreigner are, for the second time in 2 years, the band bringing the chaos. Bursting at the seams with youthful energy and possessing velocity and conviction that make Los Campesinos! look like exhausted buskers, Alexei Berrow, Kelly Southern and Junior Elvis Washington Laidley speed through 15 tracks of crossfaded vocals, intangible momentum and screeching guitar lines that last for 45 minutes; you'd swear it was 5.
I was scared for Grace And The Bigger Picture; its predecessor covered so much ground that it was difficult to see how Johnny Foreigner could avoid repeating themselves, but there's not a moment of uncalculated nostalgia to be found. Huge doses of their frantic indie-rock remain, intricate and rapidfire guitar lines latching themselves onto huge, up-tempo choruses led by a rhythm section so on-form they're invisible. A prime example of the album's foundations is found in lead single Feels Like Summer, which sees Berrow and Southern throw fleeting lyrical soundbites across the room like knives. The song opens with an a capella chant of SOME SUMMERS
, through a mesmerizing verse and into a chorus line so temporary it's astounding how catchy it becomes - heartstrings are pulling us down, but honestly, it feels like summer.
Repeat once and don't look back. 13 of these 15 songs last for less than 3 minutes, and the record plays like a punk album, saying its piece and then moving onto something new. There are punk ideas here, too - some of the verses sound almost like NOFX passages - but everything is delivered with a dramatic, unpredictable, indie bent, and it makes for brilliant exploration.
Such punk construction probably owes itself in part to the subject matter; where Waited was a documentary of Birmingham's student and music scene, Grace sees a band that have garnered attention give their honest and heartfelt slant on the places they've seen on tour; a line in More Heart, Less Tongue sees Berrow muse that London might as well be Glasgow, might as well be Tokyo
, and this is a record full of such poignant moments. When female vocalist Southern adopts a softer tone she's decidedly beautiful, as she lends her thoughtful whisper to mid-album standout I'llchoosemysideandshutup, Alright, a picked-guitar ballad-type track which builds through crashing drums to a stunning finale. And though Grace moves at a frightening pace, always capable of losing the listener under the wall of enthusiastic guitars, it's brimming with these moments that make you stop and think; Security To The Promenade turns itself down for the chorus and sees Berrow explain that we're on the promenade and we can see the stars like holiday heaven
, the closing track climaxes with a medley of familiar vocal melodies and lyrics, and (Graces) lasts just 37 seconds but pulls all the right emotional strings.
So, with a great deal of expectation, I present Exhibit B. Grace And The Bigger Picture sees the same band that made Waited Up 'Til It Was Light showing their excellence on a broader scale, keeping the recognisable mayhem and melding it with something even more tender; though it's a record that moves and twists with alarming frequency and precision, there is nothing mindless about Johnny Foreigner's second album, and there's absolutely nothing difficult about it either; they're still a band that enjoy crafting indecipherable rock songs with intoxicating hooks, no set direction and a bucketload of spirit, and they're still the best band doing it. I was scared for Grace And The Bigger Picture, but really there was no doubt whatsoever that Johnny Foreigner would come blazing out of the traps, almost too much of a blur to put your finger on, screaming about beaches and lost youth and chivalry in a single bed, just in the same way they always have done, and hopefully the same way they always will.