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The best kept secret in music


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Johan (1996)
Pergola (2001)
Thx Jhn (2006)
4 (2009)



Johan: “12.5 years, 3 albums, 36 songs”

In 1996, I went from New Amsterdam to the real Amsterdam, a Manhattan music journalist drawn by tales about a new wave of Dutch indie-rock in the wake of stateside success for Bettie Seveert’s album “Palomine.” The idea that there were more bands playing guitar-charged, English-language pop songs in the Netherlands -- a distinct shift from the club tunes and Euro ballads that dominated the continent -- was enough for Billboard magazine to send a writer in search of the sounds.

It’s a cliché to fall in love with Amsterdam at first sight, but it wasn’t just the bar lights reflecting off the canals at night that got me. There was also a kind of romance in the soundtrack I happened upon. One single, Johan’s “Everybody Knows,” stuck in my head from the second Ferry Roseboom played it for me. The label manager of Excelsior Recordings sussed out our kindred-spirit love of power-pop on the way to an Excelsior show in Utrecht (featuring Johan’s brethren, the excellent, Americana-laced Daryll-Ann and punk-pop Caesar). Ferry bet I’d love the song, and I did. “Everybody Knows” hit me as a small marvel of melody and melancholy, delivered with the edge of fresh emotion in ‘60s-meets-‘90s style.

And there was more where that came from. Spinning Johan’s eponymous debut over and again, I found it had tunes for days: the great, propulsive “Not Funny Anymore (It’s)” became a new favorite, then “He’s Not There,” “Easy (It’s)” and “Porneaux.” There was range to the album, too, in the soaring, original Bowie homage “Life on Mars” and the keening guitar groove that caps “Brown Mice.” Unsung in the wider culture it may be, but “Johan” remains a power-pop classic, as addictive in 2008 as it was in 1996. And if I had good news to report in the pages of Billboard back then, this boxed set -- the band’s first three albums remastered, plus a DVD of videoclips -- points out something better: that Johan has managed to develop artistically despite the vicissitudes of the music business, building on its debut with 2001’s “Pergola” and 2006’s “THX JHN.”

But back to the start: The soul of Johan -- singer-guitarist and songwriter Jacob de Greeuw -- hails from Hoorn, about 30 miles outside Amsterdam. He and his initial mates formed a band in reaction to “all the crap” that had been passing for their nation’s popular music in years previous, naming their foursome after Dutch soccer star Johan Cruijff. Inspired by groups from the Beatles and Kinks to Guided by Voices and the Posies, they applied lessons learned with the alacrity of youth. De Greeuw had a gift for haunting melodies and words of commensurate feeling, his clear, open voice making him sound like someone you know. The band’s dynamic drums and wires were also captured by a sympathetic producer-engineer. Excelsior’s Frans Hagenaars, who helmed glory-era discs by Bettie Seveert and Daryll-Ann, has always framed the sound of a rock combo with the ear of a pop classicist.

The initial Johan lineup fractured in the late ‘90s, but with a little help from new friends, De Greeuw recorded “Pergola.” The album’s highpoints outdo Crowded House at its own game. The pensive verses of single “Tumble and Fall” are countered by an irresistibly arching chorus. Even better, “Tomorrow” balances malaise and uplift like a kind of magic trick. De Greeuw sings about how the world was “fucked up long ago,” the words of the chorus -- “tomorrow will come to cancel the future/ tomorrow’s a gun, loaded confusion” -- grim enough to suck the air out of a day. But that chorus surges with such melodic sublimity that it is exactly the sort of thing that makes life worth living. Similarly, “Day Is Done” is a song about overcoming depression that manages to mix an inner ache with a sense of beauty and playfulness -- a combination that Neil Finn or Ray Davies would recognize as an uncommon feat.

A new, stable Johan lineup -- De Greeuw plus guitarist Maarten Kooijman, bassist Diets Dijkstra and ex-Daryll-Ann drummer Jeroen Kleijn -- cohered for “THX JHN,” its title a shorthand thank you to fans who stayed devoted in the five years separating each of the band’s albums. Opener “Coming in from the Cold” heralds a sunnier outlook (“took a long way to get here . . . but not going to give in”), as well as a lush refinement of the Johan sound. De Greeuw remains a poet of capturing the big hurts in small moments; even the romantic devotional “Oceans” carries a bittersweet undertow. But he has also broadened his lyrical outlook: “Reader Takes a Stand” casts a gimlet eye at the mindlessness often infecting 21st-century media exchange. De Greeuw’s musical subtlety has deepened, too, with “Walking Away” brimming with shimmering hooks and “When I’m on My Own” boasting a bridge that ups the emotional ante.

“12.5 years, 3 albums, 36 songs” is a summing up, yet it’s not the end of the story. Another Johan album is being mixed as I write these notes, so a new record will