Review: Eric Johnson’s vocals, acoustic guitar shine

Eric Johnson, “EJ Vol. II” (Vortexan Music)

Eric Johnson’s new album shows the amazing Texas guitar wizard moving another mystifying step closer to a singer-songwriter role.

Nine of the 13 tracks on “EJ Vol. II” are mostly sung ballads, some featuring a string quartet. A few of the songs have memorable melodies and gorgeous guitar solos, but they pale in comparison to the purely instrumental tunes showcasing Johnson’s fluid chops and exciting musicianship.

Among the vocal tunes, “Different Folks” is one of the best, with a trademark electric guitar tone and lyrical solo as Johnson expresses his heartfelt thoughts in a manner similar to John Lennon’s “In My Life.”

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“Divanáe,” about a struggling painter and his model around the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, also hits the spot, while it’s the instrumental break on “Let a Friend Find You,” led by a gentle acoustic guitar and an aching lap steel, that is its most beautiful section.

A fine take on Bert Jansch’s arrangement of the traditional “Black Waterside” leaves off the vocals, sparing you the specifics about its tale of deception and cruelty, but the music’s interpretation is clear.

“Charldron’s Boat” takes a breathless trip down the rapids and “Lake Travis” is a short but excellent acoustic guitar showcase. The also brief “For the Stars” ends the album on another touching note, as Johnson’s piano and guitar beautifully reflect thoughts and feelings about the loss of his mother.

“For the Stars” is also an excellent example of what makes Johnson’s insistence on so many vocal performances so baffling, as his guitar playing is loaded with an abundance of emotion and sensitivity that only the best singers can hope to emulate.

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