With the Brains & Brawn, Shannon Johnson is back

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One of the more fascinating alt rock singer-songwriters on the Twin Cities scene is enigmatic siren Shannon Johnson. She established a distinct presence in 2005, fronting Kymara (Liquor Hot, Live at the Fine Line) to an immediately warm reception. To be honest, that puts it mildly. The audience for the live album was so wildly enthusiastic—clapping, yelling, and screaming—you’d’ve thought someone let an insane asylum loose. She soon found herself in fast company, gigging and hanging with heavyweights like Alicia Wiley, Desdamona, and the New Congress’s Steph Devine. Hardly by happenstance: Johnson is a strong vocalist, strong songwriter, interesting guitar player, and one hell of a compelling stage presence.

For whatever reason, Kymara evidently ran out of gas, since Johnson now partners with one Joseph Souza for a duo called the Brains & Brawn, with June release Love Doesn’t Wait (EP).

Kymara, clearly, it ain’t. That band rocked on a raw edge, stripped-down sound stark with attitudinal angst sung by one of the most interesting, eccentrically unbridled voices that’ve come down in a long, long time. The Brains & Brawn, incredibly enough, improves on it. Johnson’s raw edge gets sweet polish without losing a bit of authentic artistry. What’s clear is her impassioned vocals are still there, nuanced and subtler than ever. The lyrics, still killer, lilt more. Poignant.

For instance, “Conspire.” Characteristically breathless, here husky, there tantalizing in her upper range, she entrances. “The universe conspires and what we have inside we don’t always know. And when I see your eyes looking into mine..I don’t always know. But there is a truth in you.” By the time this song is done, your libido has, trust me, been put through a wash-and-dry wringer and hopefully found not wanting. One thing that follows Shannon Johnson from Kymara through brief solo stints to the present: combining articulate lyrics and sensual allure, she may very well be the sexiest white-rock artist since Jim Morrison.

Joining Johnson in the Brains & Brawn, Joseph Souza pulls his weight. He sings lead on “Down Low,” affording a pleasant—albeit unremarkable—sensibility. Souza writes serviceable pop melodies, sings the right notes in the right and places, and will not re-invent the book on lyric writing with “You’re the one with things unseen and check your motives against the scene.  Now you’re off…you’re off…you get off. You’ve got interpersonal needs. It’s weed killer for all our seeds. But we sew, we sew, it’ll grow…Yeah we sew, we sew, it’ll grow. So hang your head down low. Fight your battles in the unknown. So hang your head down low, fight your battles in the unknown. Cuz you needed more than the truth, a lie and a whore. Yeah you needed more than the truth a line, and a whore. So hang your head down low. Fight your battles in the unknown.”

His songs on Love Doesn’t Wait greatly benefit from production values, mastered by Owen Sartori. Souza is, bottom line, a pedestrian performer riding on Johnson’s considerable coattails. Not that he’s hard to listen to; he’s just not particularly interesting.

Johnson, fans can clap hands, is up to something new.

Read Dwight Hobbes’s previous writing on Shannon Johnson: Kymara and Shannon Shine (July 2007), A night at the Acadia with Kymara’s Shannon Johnson (October 2009).