PETE JOHNSON – Screwball – CD (self released/not on label 2019)


Albums embodying, expressing or otherwise loosely interpreting fluctuations in mental health are certainly not unusual – Channeling brain turbulence through any form of art is a timeworn tradition, no doubt manifesting itself in multitudes of vanilla lists scattered across the internet to render us all experts on the subject. As a result, ‘Tortured artists’ and genuine cries for help merge into a ubiquitous brown Plastacine ball where one can no longer clearly be separated from the other.

How the subject matter feeds into and/or leeks out of the music creates a lingering discomfort in terms of end product – It’s a balance between questioning the wisdom of packaging something highly personal to be consumed as entertainment by strangers, and firing a rough-hewn beacon of hope blindly out into the world.

An attempt to inclusively list important records relating to this would quickly get messy, but several examples far beyond generic pop star meltdowns immediately spring to mind…

The obvious is Syd Barrett’s semi listenable The Madcap Laughs – likely the classic archetype of friends ill advisedly forcing the hand of a talented but hugely unstable individual. Long deemed some sort of voyeuristic psych-folk experience, it would reside in the bin next to the musical shittings of Charles Manson if Syd Barrett were an unknown and not Pink Floyd Alumni. Cut from a similar bolt of cloth, Daniel Johnston’s bloated catalogue of home recordings is the back-alley self-medication of music therapy – full of intrigue and charm but messy and encourageable in many questionable ways…

Far under the radar there’s Doc Corbin Dart and Nick Blinko… The former, once-upon-a-time vocalist with the Crucifucks sketched out a breakdown in full flight on his 1990 Alternative Tentacles album Patricia – Sometimes cryptic and often openly blunt, it’s the sound of someone trying to stay alive, but remains a strangely listenable experience… And there’s little doubt that Rudimentary Peni’s aesthetic, both visual and auditory, is drenched in the tribulations of Nick Blinko, even if the subject matter mostly adheres to punk tropes…

And definitely worth a mention is OF MONTREAL’s sprawling Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? – Kevin Barnes’ inspired psychedelic pop opus about chemical imbalance. It sometimes seems to revel in itself but the musical results are pretty bulletproof.

…But what does this any have to do with the topic at hand?

…well… Pete Johnson’s SCREWBALL is the latest in a long line of endeavours from the Dundalk musician whose notable footprints include the mighty Rumble in the 1990s, the short lived Receptors, and sporadic solo offerings (4-5 solo albums) including a thing about Dundalk FC which (as someone who is allergic to groups of men shouting at sport) I won’t pretend I had much interest in…

What makes SCREWBALL remarkable is that it’s ostensibly an album that commits to breaking stigma rather than allowing the beast to take over and feed the art. And nobody enters into developing this sort of project unless it’s deeply personal… making it a brave move, whatever the end result.

WE NEED TO TALK is a poppy, choppy and offbeat commencement of proceedings, laying out the album’s theme with clarity and rounding off with devil’s advocate banter and dueling “expertise”. NEW BASS SONG debunks its flaccid title as an inspired, economic and frantic punk scat. BE CAREFUL OF YOUR ENEMIES is cautionary in a more novel way draping itself on a strong chorus while LYRICS FROM HELEN’S PHONE is exactly that – a dumping ground or junk drawer of lyrical ideas – happy accidents and coincidental symbiotic connectors that make the piece work as a contented verbal mess.

SCREWBALL is a garage punk trick with a conceptual pneumatic drilling interlude – orthodox in its leanings but finely detailed. THE MAST lays out the isolating effect of tech convenience, and up to the slow guitar chug of AN EYE FOR AN EYE, everything seems like a well-considered bite size piece of the album’s theme. By the time we get to CHECKPOINT AT CLANCY PARK however, elements of solo-project syndrome creep in… This track repeats a fast and a slow part over and over into monotony – on an album where the majority of tracks fulfill their purpose around the 2-2:30 minute mark, anything that outstays its welcome is very noticeable… this could easily shed a minute of its duration for the sake of clarity.

AND 10 LIVE TUNES (live) was essentially what constituted the lead video to support the album (minus SCREWBALL). The full band kitchen jam was released on World Suicide Prevention Day and while it’s one of the more necessarily communicative tracks on the album, its various faux-reggae leanings are not a creative highlight. The anomalous LIGHTS OUT KELLY fares much better – Electronic clatter and loose crunchy guitar applies shock therapy to the album at a point where its grow-lamps were losing heat… In fact, the entire album could do with more of this!!

One of the most interesting tracks here is definitely STATE, the first of two dated from 2001. This mixes a 60s psych sound with electronics and embraces the core of the album in a lyrical cocktail of paranoia, delusion and sleep depravation. STATE succeeds in its bare bones honesty… and the fact that it’s a finely crafted track certainly helps. Finally, CHANGE (also from 2001) serves as the light at the end of the tunnel, right down to the raw “I’m alive” refrain at the end. Although there’s a 17-year compositional gap between the bulk of the album and the final two tracks, everything seems to draw together coherently due to the older sonic bookend.

SCREWBALL is an allsorts album – guitar pop, scratchy punk and electronics (unfortunately not enough of the later) – all dumped into a cocktail shaker and agitated into a somewhat fluid end product… albeit with the occasional lump present. It is variously a chirpy, a frantic and an uncomfortable listen – basically, it embodies the concept in whatever way it can, digging for logic where there often isn’t any!

And I can’t round this up without mentioning the wonderful album artwork – strong graphics, represents the album, does its job – Far too many crap album covers doing the rounds… this is not one of them!!

Beyond live shows, this album is solely available by electronic badgering . I have no idea why there’s no website or Bandcamp or any other online portal – It may suggest that there isn’t a huge amount of regular musical ambition for the album beyond spreading the basic sentiments and the odd low-key exposition of noise… Who knows??

More writings on Irish punk here… 

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