Americana take “II”: Johnny Young’s modern folk rock

I saw Johnny Young at a house show in Chicago last fall and was impressed by his ability to take the lexicon of a rural past and make it relevant to the millennial denizens of an urban basement. His tape “II,” released last year through Voyager Golden Records,  has the same appeal, showcasing inventive songwriting that transcends genre tropes and pastiche.

“II” contains six compact examples of Young’s songcraft and solid technique. While these tunes fall squarely within the American Primitive vibe, with identifiable influences on each track, Young makes the songs his own with the occasional atypical note choice or unexpected turnaround.

Opener “Magnolia Blues” breezes past with uptempo slide work. This sound is revisited on side 2 in “Boonesbourough Trail,” both songs evoking John Fahey’s open-tuned melodicism. “Bayberry Family Blues” features some dextrous fingerpicking, and “Going to Pleasant Valley” subtly subverts harmonic expectations. “Tender Rag” sounds like it could have been on Fahey’s “Old Fashioned Love” album, and, though it is more firmly rooted in its influences than the other songs, it’s joyous buoyancy is contagiously enjoyable. Young is joined by Andrew Scott on mandolin, and their interplay propels the tune.

My favorite song on “II” is “King of Rapid River.” Strongly reminiscent of Robbie Basho, the song features dark modal playing in a low slack tuning. It’s nearly six minutes long, letting Young stretch out and explore the melody from various angles.

Throughout the album, Johnny Young freshly updates a classic American folk idiom. This ability to connect the past to the present makes “II” feel fresh. Instead of a sterile museum piece, Young creates a breathing document that both catalogs an America long gone and points toward a viable future.

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