Canyon Hut Recording, Currents Album, Jeff Robinson, Johnny Calderwood, Justin Chester, Original Son, Original Son LA, Sell The Heart Records
I write about music a lot and often look at it through the lens of how it impacts me emotionally. So, I will write about the album “Currents” from LA band Original Son through the same lens. (Note—guitarist/singer/songwriter Johnny Calderwood is my original son.) It will be interesting to see where this exercise takes me. It may be a jumble of parents, friends, musicians, creative souls, and flawed humans. I guess we will see.
The album “Currents” shows Original Son’s roots in punk and builds out from there. In my mind, the band and the record are just good old-fashioned kickass rock and roll with a heart and a conscience.
The ten songs are full of emotion, from deep anger to natural optimism. Rhythmic shifts and musical intensity slam against subversively upbeat choruses, creating a fast-moving thrill ride. The connectivity between music, lyrics, and performance has the flow of good storytelling. The arrangements drop surprising little hooks, with background vocals, percussion, snatches of piano, and some tasty Hammond organ adding to the sonic picture. Producer Tim Hutton keeps it all flowing, never stealing focus from the guitar-bass-drums vibe that is the core of Original Son.
The musicians – singer/guitarist Johnny Calderwood, bassist Justin Chester, and drummer Jeff Robinson, sound like a band– an honest compliment to them. Each player has a knack for dropping lines and phrases that make me go, “Woah, I didn’t see that coming, or just DAMN!!!” Younger, hipper reviewers have compared their playing to more contemporary musicians. I hear flashes of the players I have listened to over the years. In Justin, I hear John Entwistle as much as modern players like Flea and Mike Dirnt. Drummer Robinson reminds me of Mighty Max Weinberg, not so much in tone but in intense, rock-solid time and taste. (I asked John, “how hard does he hit?” to which he replied, “As hard as he needs to.” A compliment I know musicians who play in bands will understand and appreciate.)
As a guitarist, Johnny is an intense, dynamic rhythm player with a thick tone that fills out the mid-range with solid time and controlled aggression that lays down a bed for his crazy-good vocals. His solos, mostly short and to the point, dispense with gimmicks and make statements appropriate to the song. He shows a surprising range of stylistic influences, and nods to everyone from Mike Ness to Neil Young. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with his lead tones, but I have realized over time that his sound is his sound. His note choices and poignant phrasing in his short solo during “The Avenues” stopped me cold and had me hitting rewind. Moments may go unnoticed during casual listening, but these little glimpses beneath the bold and brash add dimension to my understanding of the artists.
The opening track, “Castles,” made me sit up and think, what do we have here? A dark, almost menacing eighth-note bassline joins with gritty power chords dragging a tail of feedback and crashing cymbals. A forceful voice asks, “This is the end/ Are we running out/of solid ground/did you learn to shout?” And then – BAM!!! Full-on punk-flavored power trio rock spitting social commentary on our fractured and divisive society and the actors who orchestrate the hate. “We’re all locked out /of the rooms of the castles/ of your masters. / In a world /built on deception/ you did not question/you are the weapon.” The song moves through a few subtle yet distinct styles, at one point causing me to flash to Deep Purple’s “Highway Star.”
Then comes “Parasite,” the first single released from the album. Brighter, bouncier, a bit cleaner sounding, giving the impression that it was a happy piece. Until I read the lyrics. This song’s moral and political core targets those who choose to attack rather than build. “You got your merry men/they keep their torches raised/so we can identify them/ You are a parasite/an American Parasite.”
“Well’s Run Dry” beats me up with the fury of the lyric, the ragged emotion of hurt, and the undeniable glimpse of acceptance and guarded reconciliation in the chorus, “we don’t want to talk about it.” And then comes the breakdown courtesy of a volcanic performance by hardcore legend Lou Koller of Sick of It All. “You cannot fake this/you cannot break this/we turned our rage to hope and changed the whole perspective.” The beligerent heys are a reminder that “we don’t want to talk about it.” “We” may not want to, but there it is.
Aha – “Currents.” A minute-long respite to collect myself. Guitar and vocal. Snatches of piano, a bit of keyboard, and one minute of philosophy-driven questions and observations about the world we find ourselves grinding through. The vocal is outstanding, almost beautiful—a strange word to use, given the delivery’s ragged edges and gritted teeth. There is courage in letting the lyric and vocal stand in the clear. And then it is over. I need to rethink the use of the word respite.
My absolute favorite in this collection of favorites is “The Avenues.” The song is a big basket of little hooks and moves like a ride on a gently rolling road of lyrics and melody. It is part rage, part despair, and part guilt. The story is inspired by what he sees in his adopted city of Los Angeles; the homeless, the underserved, the everyman and woman being driven farther and farther into hopeless situations while the ones with the means remake the city into walls of privilege. Johnny reflects on his journey in parallel to the changing communities he knew and shared. “We all found shelter here/and then it disappeared/between the lights and the glamour we made our way and survived. /Did we lose ourselves/in those dim-lit rooms/did the city slip away while we broke all the rules?” Then the relentlessly melodic chorus of “We’re just waiting for the fallout, baby. We’re just waiting for the walls to come tumbling down. Did they build it up/just to push us out? Recycle everything and turn this town upside down….” The band marches resolutely through the deceptively simple, repetitive chord progressions, allowing the lyrics to tell the story. A signature guitar phrase runs through the song, including the beginning of the solo, which adds a short eight bars of melody that breaks my heart every time I hear it. The final chant at the end says it all – “They’re gonna fuck it up. They’re gonna fuck it up” over a swirl of layered vocals repeating “down, down.”
“The Turnaround” is a reimagined take on an earlier recording, moving away from the more pop sound of the original into a gritty, almost punk-funk reading. Like “Currents,” the intro is low-key and a bit tense, then the band tears into an aggressive rock-funk slam that is invigorating and soulfully nasty. Power move here.
“Fire Away” is a therapy session in two and a half minutes. “I might be broken beyond repair ’cause the pieces are too jagged to fix.” The background vocals on the ending are almost dirge-like ooh – oohs. The message is mixed, but the almost rockabilly feel shakes things all around, so the listener has the urge to sway and shout FIRE AWAY!
“Flesh and Bone” and “Shelter” are raw and rollicking. On these tracks, the rhythm section rules. Drummer Robinson kicks off Flesh and Bone with a Mick Fleetwood-like drum intro, switches to a pounding, unclenched hi-hat, then hits the gas with a punishing beat that calls the rest of the players to the table. Bassist Chester lets loose with some dynamic solo lines that make this old bass player grin like a schoolboy. He also pops out in Shelter, shoving every inch of air out of the low end and into the atmosphere. Another tear of minor-ish guitar runs crashes into a pounded piano, ending in a glorious wash of tones, tunes, and atmosphere. I hear things in my headphones that I’m not sure are there – yes, it is that ear-opener.
The last song, “Hymn For The Underground,” is a punk-rock pep talk for everyman, capturing the essence of accountability and self-destiny. “You’re not replaceable/ they can’t walk on water/we are the ones who make the gears turn…you are glorious.” Be good to yourself, find and celebrate your value, and “stand up for what you love.”
To my ear, The Turnaround, Avenues, and Hymn For The Underground call out for social awareness and activism from the masses.
Well’s Run Dry, Flesh and Bone, and Shelter share the more intimate and painful truths of trying to find some peace in a life filled with great highs and lows. Alienation and anger singe the edges, but a bit of jaded optimism is threaded throughout the pain. The one word that comes to mind is “accountability.”
I love this record for a whole lot of reasons. One of the best ones? It makes me want to sing, dance, pound the table and yell words not suited to a man of my age. And I will, and you just might too.
Words and Music by John Calderwood Arrangements by Original Son
Guitar & Vocals – Johnny Calderwood
Bass & Vocals – Justin Chester
Drums – Jeff Robinson
Additional Vocals on Well’s Run Dry – Lou Koller
B3 Hammond – Howard Laravae Piano – Tim Hutton Percussion – Chris Reynolds
Recorded at Canyon Hut Studios
Produced by Tim Hutton Engineered and Mixed by Chris Reynolds Mastered by Hans DeKline
Available on Sell The Heart Records
And on all the Streaming Services