Robb Johnson – Pandemic Songs

Album Review | Glastonwick Festival Irregular Records | Review by Marc Higgins

Robb Johnson is a unique singer songwriter performer, a sharp mix of Billy Bragg and music hall sweetness.  Very socially aware, his albums read like diaries, the twenty first century’s more Liberal Samuel Pepys, with an electric guitar.  Johnson’s recent albums looked hard at Brexit and the life of The Health Service.  What makes all this truly memorable is that Robb is steeped in music, delivering songs not just worthy polemic, drawing on theatrical sensibilities, folk and jazz with beauty and grace.  

Pandemic Songs, recorded with a socially distanced version of The Irregulars, is a chronicle and reflection on the events of the first half of 2020.  “Saint Mary” with Folk Rock skip, Johnson describes as a fable about the origin of a virus.  With lyrics that reference Black Death nursery rhymes while being laced with contemporary bite its a feisty opener.  Informed by rich jazz guitar and Arvin’s sophisticated brushes and percussion, “Monday Afternoon In The Paris House” documents a final March 16th pre lockdown gig.  Robb croons and the whole is poignant and smooth at the same time. “422” is a lockdown song, memories and concerns collide.  Robb and Fae Simon’s voices are beautiful together as it all fades into history over a hypnotic guitar.  Every now and then like with “More Than Enough” (powerfully covered by both Roy Bailey and Martin Simpson), Johnson writes something truly universal and anthemic.  With the snappy 80s festival bass of Latin Quarter, “One More Lockdown Day” is dry sharp observation over a bouncing rhythm.  You say it was tongue in cheek, but only Johnson’s tone is jokey, the absurd details are all true.  “5373” documents rising deaths in a seething tone over a Velvet Underground grind of guitar and drums.  Moving from Robb’s curmudgeonly rage at being stuck at home to a sombre reminder of those who have died.  “89p” through a fake George Formby smile Johnson spits at absurdity like a stage performer in a dystopean panto.  The dark gallows humour continues in “Disinfectant” two fingers waved at Trump’s cure over bouncy Americana with a big touch of the very English Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.  “The Highlight Of My Week” is a beautiful love song to the ordinary and everyday that builds into light as air gospel loveliness.  Carefully observed delight continues in the dream like “All The Bella Were Ringing”, “Lockdown Jokes And Stories” is a punch wrapped in humour, weaving Lockdown’s caricature absurd Lord Haw Haw that is Cummings in with real life Covid 19 heroes.  This one brings a lump to the throat and feels like it could gain verses.  “Victory In Europe” marries an infectious chorus with sharp lyrics, raw guitar and a touch of The Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” with its disconnect between surreal lyrics and raging music.  Robb’s Punk snarl and distain is spot on. “The Days We Don’t Forget” is like one of those Ww2 mass observation diary, a litany of the ordinary and real.  The everyday heroes who worked around the spin and lies, delivered in a song with some fiery guitar. “In Palmeira Square” is another softly observed ballad, a mix of love song and Jah Wobble punk poetry.  The lyrics are a delight “there are more things to admire in us than there are to despite” is wry up beat philosophy to rival the end of The Beatles Abbey Road.  “Big Floyd” is a desperately sad song detailing the story of George Floyd.  Robb’s soft voice delivers the bitter and damming lyrics, documenting.  Robb Johnson is an institution, a musical diarist and the counter culture’s poet laureate, delivering fine visceral music and recording the futures folk songs on yet another unmissable album.