EP Review: Nicholas Johnson – Shady Pines vol. 2

Americana singer-songwriter Nicholas Johnson had to go through a journey before being able to record his latest EP, Shady Pines Vol 2, including moving to Milan, Italy and then being kicked out over visa issues. Working with producer/engineer Patrick Himes starting in 2018, Johnson would fly from Italy back to Dayton, Ohio to write and record with Himes, and the results are finally here to share with the world.

Johnson can confidently know that all those miles accrued were not for nothing, as the songs on Shady Pines Vol 2 are a blast of rollicking roots-rock, with shades of classic 70’s songwriting, rockabilly and acoustic balladry on display. The opening tracks “Middle of Nowhere” and “On the Avenue” are both high-energy rock n’ roll. The former is a pure escapist anthem (“Let’s get out of here baby, nothing to lose. Let’s shake off the dust, rust belt blues”), which makes sense coming from someone based in the middle of the country who moved to Italy.

There’s more melancholy on “The Damned and the Lonely”, which carries on the tradition of songs like “Born to Run” and “Living on a Prayer”, telling the story of a struggling couple looking for their break (“She gives me a smile, she gives me a beer. When’re we getting out of here?…All we ever wanted was a place to hide”). While more mid tempo than those two anthemic tracks in the pantheon, Johnson still finds the pathos and humanity in his protagonists’ story that hits a nerve. Johnson does another dip into the pantheon of steady drinking ballads on “Lost and Found”, finding his inner “Piano Man” (“Broken, scattered, the drunks are all scattered, moving from bar to bar”) with a soothing, dreamy chorus that recalls tracks like Mazzy Star‘s “Fade into You”.

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Johnson’s influences come in too heavily. Moodier track “Binghamton NY is a Portal to Hell” is a first cousin to Blue Oyster Cult‘s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” during the verses, with some nice piano notes and wicked guitar lines giving it more identity. The chorus does kick things up a notch, adding some guttural muscle to the song.

The EP closes strongly, with the spirited rockabilly number “Dark and Bloody Ground”, which kicks up a gnarly ruckus, and the somber, stripped-back acoustic “New Vampire”. That track’s mournful guitar and poetic lyrics showcase Johnson at his most soulful, and definitely has a future being included on a number of people’s personal playlists, as it feels like one of those secret songs people will love and want to keep for themselves.

But, good music should never be kept a secret. Be sure to check out the EP when it drops tomorrow, March 3rd. You can check out Shady Pines Vol. 1 here.


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