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He's Your Desk Clerk at Heartbreak Hotel



"This Perfect World"


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Freedy Johnston needs melancholy the way a fish needs water. It's his habitat, his sustaining element, and on the few occasions when he flops onto a musically sunny shore, he seems lost and anonymous.

But under a sky made overcast by cello, shrouded in minor-chord mists, the Kansas native becomes an authoritative chronicler of betrayal, heartbreak and missed connections. On his major-label debut, following a couple of cult-building independent releases, Johnston gives us characters who use any means--even death--to escape loneliness.

Musically, Johnston embraces the pure-pop tradition that ruled the world in the '60s and resurfaced post-punk as an underground movement. The kind of hooks that made Tommy James & the Shondells disposable product are transformed by an ironic twist into conduits for deep emotions--into something approaching High Pop.

Johnston (who plays at McCabe's on Saturday) brings a folk-rock roughness, a little samba and a taste of Tin Pan Alley to the blend--all of which should add up to a richer, more dynamic sound than comes across in Butch Vig's production. "Don't you want me now . . . I'm just breakin' down," Johnston sings, but the music--restrained and formal--doesn't do anything to express that condition.

That makes it tough to deliver the subversive edge that's been his calling card, but the neurotic quiver in his Neil Young-like voice and his cutting touch with a lyric keep him safely immersed.

New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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