Souvenir is an assortment of tracks that have remained tucked away in Johnson’s private collection, spanning his 20-plus year career. In other words, it’s the crap that wasn’t good enough for his regular releases. A known perfectionist, evidenced by his taking six years between releasing CDs, it’s fair to ask why release the stuff that initially wasn’t good enough for public consumption. The answer seems to be to satisfy the hunger of his fans. Unfortunately, too few gems emerge on this mostly boring release. The first track, “Get to Go,” finished in 2002, combines a swanky slide guitar with a groovin’ rhythm section. It’s not bad, until Johnson opens his mouth. Vocally, think Richard Marx mixed with that dude from the Backstreet Boys, who
is never allowed to sing because his voice is too weak. The guitar solo takes the sonic form of a New Orleans horn section, but it’s not enough to give energy to this tune.
Johnson’s third track, a cover of the Beatle’s “Paperback Writer,” lacks any of the original’s grit that made it so great. “Writer” was supposed to be a dirty and sarcastic take on a Beach Boy’s tunes. Johnson’s sounds like a light rock take on a Beatle’s tune. It should be said, however, that the guitar solo at the end is fantastic.
A couple of tracks do emerge to showcase Johnson’s amazing guitar work. “Finding You” features a crisp and bluesy solo (think David Gilmore from Pink Floyd), while “Climbing From Inside” has some great acoustic guitar work. The best tracks, however, are the last two of the album. “A Memory I Have” is a haunting instrumental performed on a reverb-drenched guitar, featuring fat, warm jazz chords and some creative phrasing. “Dusty” is a rockabilly instrumental recorded in 1976 during Johnson’s first solo gig. Both these tracks demonstrate why the name Eric Johnson is synonymous for accurate and amazing guitar playing.
Many tracks are barebones recordings, featuring just Johnson on vocals and his acoustic guitar. Sounding more like a Kenny Login’s wannabe, those tracks seem to lose focus and are a letdown for anyone searching for that great guitar sound from Musicom. When Johnson tries to go back to his bluesy Austin, Texas roots on the track “Hard Times,” his uninteresting voice ends up glossing what should be a raucous and powerful jam. Johnson would be much better served to have someone else perform on these tracks, as Kenny Wayne Sheppard does, than let the songs suffer because of a bad vocal performance.
It’s understandable that an artist would want to tide over his fans between albums, or at least give himself an excuse to tour. However, those artists should be careful of what to make available to the public, which is why Souvenir is wisely sold only over the Internet on Johnson’s Website, www.ericjohnson.com. Sure, the album is intended to fill the (sizable) void between his major releases, but only die-hard Johnson junkies will make the effort to get this. It’s not that he’s bad songwriter, or even that some of the more “experimental tracks” like “Space of Clouds” are terrible. Rather, why offer up an uninspired selection of songs if the public is not going to interested in them, and your strength of talent, i.e. your guitar playing ability, isn’t even showcased? Those looking for Johnson’s true musical prowess would be better served taking a trip to the record store to find Live and Beyond, the 2000 live recording by Johnson’s side project, a blues trio called “Alien Love Child.” The only thing Souvenir brings home is a collection of soft rock blah! Sorry Eric -- I love ya, but this album stinks.
~Joe Del Re