“Johnstown” 20th Anniversary Remaster – Oh Susanna

5 stars (out of 5)

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It’s easy to be cynical about the whole remaster/rerelease game – it’s been abused by the music business for so long as a way of making the same material pay its way several times over. And then a 20-year anniversary of something like “Johnstown” comes along with a couple of really good reasons to make the effort. The technical one is that the vinyl release would demand a remaster and the commercial reason is that there are music-lovers that would have completely missed this in 1999 who are blown away by it in 2019; I’m right at the front of that queue.

In common with her autobiographical 2017 album “A Girl in Teen City”, “Johnstown” has a strong sense of place – the scene is set for the twelve stories against a backdrop of a town that has lived for decades with the ominous threat of floods. And just to ramp up the feeling of impending doom, the album opens with a minor-key murder ballad underpinned by distorted and menacing guitar. So that’s just the title song and I’m buying it already.

There genuinely isn’t a mediocre song on the album; they’re all right out of the top drawer and they’re a varied bunch in terms of themes and arrangements; “You’ll Always Be” is a relatively straightforward love song until an edge of shadow is added with a superbly atonal piano solo, while the hauntingly beautiful triple-time ballad “Alabaster” is wrapped in a minimalist arrangement that emphasises the individuality of Susie Ungerleider’s voice and the octave leaps that give the voice its unique quality. And so it goes, right up to the album’s final song, in triple-time again, the gorgeous “Tangled & Wild”, embellished by some keening pedal steel and bringing the album to a gentle close; but not quite.

That’s where the original album ended, but there are a few little surprises in the shape five stripped-back demo-style versions of songs from the album. I’m also cynical about the addition of ‘bonus’ tracks that are added to tempt the completist collector, but the additions here work well and they have all been previously commercially available as an EP. “Johnstown” proves that the song works without the album arrangement and “Alabaster” (which finally closes the album) is perfect as a solo piece. This is an album that I genuinely wish I’d heard twenty years ago and I’m sure I’ll be listening to in another twenty years.

“Johnstown” is released in the UK on Friday August 30th on Continental Song City (CSCCD 1164) and Oh Susanna will be touring the UK in early September.