Cats are wonderful. They're amazing creatures. I've known quite a few special kitties in my day, and I'm glad to have known 'em. (Well, most of 'em.) There was Kitler, the cat who looked and acted like Hitler. Then there was Milo, the punk-rock cat that could sneak out of any situation--or building. There was the two cats whose names I forget right now who were caught recording messages on their owner's answering machine. There was Zoe, the cat of this girl I liked, who disliked me and would scratch me every time I came over. Then there was the old kittenless cat who adopted a beanie-baby cat as its own. Then there Mister Bruce Lee, a big black cat who would curl up beside me and snuggle at night, whose picture I keep in a frame by my stereo. Then there's my cat Ink, who always turns on the kitchen sink when he wants a drink of water. Heck, I could write a book on the hijinx of my own black boy cat. I've had a life filled with unique felines, and I wouldn't trade my memories of 'em.
I thought of all of these wee beasties when listening to Will Johnson's latest opus, The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until The Operation's Through. For Johnson, this record's a bit different. While it fits in with South San Gabriel's formula--dark, atmopsheric music that's gorgeously hazy, slightly stoned and more than a little melancholy--it's different in that it's his first full-blown concept album. The concept? It's about a cat who gets thrown outside at night and runs away but returns because he's hurt and needs an operation. Yeah, it seems a bit haughty, doesn't it? Of course, having a love for all things Will Johnson-related--and knowing that the previous South San Gabriel album was on my top ten list of 2003, I knew that I would be biased towards The Carlton Chronicles. I mean, the man releases so much music, it's easy to run out of different ways to praise his genius, so why not get an expert opinion on this concept record? I quickly decided that the best person to review this record would be Ink, the unofficial Mundane Sounds mascat.
So this evening, it was just me and the boy-cat. I turned down the lights, put some food and water in his dish, picked him up and curled up with him while the music gently played. Though I don't speak Feline, he and I communicate with excellent non-verbal expression. I wasn't sure how he was going to react to this experiment; Ink's all man-cat, he doesn't really go for the 'cuddle' thing. He's also a genius, so I'm confident he'll dig the concept; Johnson writes simple but occasionally obtuse lyrics, but I have every reason to believe that Ink will understand it all and will offer me the appropriate opinion after the record's done.
As expected, when the first notes of the gorgeous "Charred Resentment the Same," his ears perked up, but he really didn't seem that interested. I told him that the record's about a cat's life, he seemed a bit more interested; he sat on my chest, looking at me with great interest. He then snuggled up beside me for the majority of the album. He occasionally gave me a look that was somewhere between smug and stoned, usually at moments where Carlton tells of a general truth--such as "I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite," a lament to being thrown out for the night--and in his own way, he told me 'I know that's right!' to "The Dark of the Garage," which highlights the urge to go out and answer the call of the wild, whilst being stuck inside for no apparent reason other than punishment. Mostly, though, he relaxed while listening. He is a cat, and such human things really don't interest him--he is above us, after all--but the washes of atmosphere and strings and piano and pedal steel guitars is a relaxing lullaby for creatures of all genus and species.
For the most part, I'd say he listened to it patiently, and it seems as if he liked it; he didn't protest, nor did he try to leave, but he did purr the whole time. And if you don't think he understood the concept, think again: when he heard "Sicknessing," the album's touchingly sweet finale, he cuddled up to me in a way that's unlike him, and he told me in his own special way that he loves me and that I'm important to him--which is the theme of the song. He knew what was going on, and his affection and appreciation of me made my heart melt.
The Carlton Chronicles might be a bit of an odd concept--and if you don't have the script that goes with the record, you won't hear the concept at all--but when you give it a chance, you'll hear a mellow, depressed record that's got a stoned-out Texas vibe that's warm and beautiful and moving and is nothing more than a fine addition to Will Johnson's increasingly impressive discography.
Artist Website: http://www.south-san-gabriel.com
Label Website: http://www.misrarecords.com