Review: Johnny Utah - "Small Dogs"

Johnny Utah - Small Dogs
(2017 Bangkok Blend)

 "Okay, why do little kids always draw the sun with a smiley face?" asks Johnny Utah, halting the folk-pop lilt of "deli platter". "We don't know where it stands, emotionally"

The Philadelphian singer-songwriter's an inquisitive guy with an eye for detail. The five tunes that make up his debut EP, Small Dogs, are carefully and intricately pressed into a Communion-wafer-thin canvas of sound, then inked with wheezes of acoustic guitar that seep sloppily into their host. Like Sentridoh and Julia Brown before him, Utah uses the fragile frame of his lo-fi soundscapes to create punchy contrasts. The aforementioned "deli platter," for example, toys with its levels of volume and saturation. flooding its initially parched heave of acoustic chords with a cool gulp of bass. Properly watered, the song's soil is fertile enough to cultivate steady thwacks of percussion and buzzing, three-part vocal harmonies. Occasionally, Utah presses pause on the cut altogether, interjecting with bits of director's commentary before hurtling back into regularly scheduled programming. Though one might expect a hiccup like that to disrupt the rhythm of a track, these interruptions are timed precisely enough to enhance the groove in progress, like a roller coaster's well-placed bend, yanking its passengers awake. 

The following track, "angst", is another textural feast. As percussive chords throb out a 4-on-the-floor beat, Utah belts out mumbly bars of Alex G-inspired melody like signal flares fired through the canopy of a thick forest -- barely made out, but understood on a fundamental level. Drum fills are fashioned out of an overturned bucket, tickling the inner ear while hearkening back to The Velvet Underground's "Heroin". This is as poppy as Utah's songcraft gets, riding sweeping chords like waves that gradually increase in size. 

"rhino mountain" closes Small Dogs with its most satisfying effort. A spoken word piece dissolves into pluckings of acoustic guitar before coming to a boil. A simple drum machine rhythm bubbles at the surface, dragging Utah's groaned lyrics through murky tape hiss. Twangy riffs tie knots around the arrangements to hold them in place, only to let things unravel into a climactic eruption of noise. Fade to black.

Johnny Utah's debut effort is best when it's at its weirdest. He's an eccentric with a calculated method to his madness, giving each experiment or jarring timbral shift its own purpose that adds to the album as a whole. Already a solid effort in its own right, Small Dogs gives me hope for even more lo-fi whimsy in the future.