#RethinkThursday: Jack Johnson’s “In Between Dreams”

What I think I’m gonna say when I’m done: I don’t smoke pot, but I sort of feel like I just did.

I’m leveling with you here. I actually have some fond memories of Jack Johnson‘s music.

Even if the guy’s success is probably what caused the masses to use the word “chill” for describing humans. Even if that phenomenon eventually popularized the term “chillax”, which as it turns out is the name of one of the horses of the apocalypse. You play me a track or two of Johnson’s surf-and-weed tunes and I might find a reason to smile.

I remember a sunny Saturday-morning ritual in college: we’d pile into cars and drive to the park for a couple hours of ultimate frisbee with friends. It was about the only relief we got from our hectic student schedules. (I went to a school where parties featured root beer floats, so yeah, stress relief wasn’t our forte.) Every week without fail, my roommate Rick would drive us in his gold Nissan Maxima, easily the nicest car anybody on the block owned. And every week he’d turn up the stereo and get good vibes flowing for everybody with a round of Johnson’s “Mudfootball”: “Saturday morning and it’s time to go,” etc etc etc. I still hear the ringing snare drum on that track, and even now the memory of that sound makes me want to walk away from every responsibility.

Nobody seemed to notice, by the way, that we were playing a way-less-manly sport than football.

But those memories don’t mean I have much awe for the guy’s music. Let’s face it: you’ve heard a hundred cocksure frat boys play Johnson’s songs — or at least his style — at any number of uncomfortable parties or open mic nights. And I bet more than a few played it better. Johnson’s a pretty good guitarist and songwriter, sure, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him made me think of him as a significant musician. I remember that he’s a surfer with a guitar. I remember laid-back strumming and an occasional solo line that was (maybe?) inspired by blues, or played by someone who had (probably?) heard of blues music.

I remember our plastic disc floating across a blue sky on the weekends. That’s about it. And yet there are people who have gotten permanent tattoos of this album’s cover — like this and this.

My disregard (even distaste) for Johnson’s stuff only grows because it’s the daily soundtrack for some people I have a really hard time being around. These include many of the people who want to make it very clear to you, all the time, that they’re chillaxing, bro. These are overly-wealthy white people who will be dancing badly and very drunkly to Jack Johnson on the backs of ski boats well into their 60s, as they have every Sunday for the last four decades, and they will believe this is the good life.

I don’t know, maybe it is and I’m missing something. But on to the music.

In Between Dreams, Jack Johnson’s third and best-selling album, is ten years old this month. So sticking to last week’s model, a revisit of Radiohead‘s The Bends as it hit 25, I thought I’d take a look at another popular album that I just wasn’t ever impressed with, on a significant anniversary. Maybe I’ll find out I really love it. In fact, I hope so.

I’m pushing play, writing a live track-by-track review, and then publishing whatever comes out. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say in the comments below.

Here it is. In Between Dreams:

Track 1 – “Better Together”: As I start this album I still have “Black Star” from The Bends in my head, from a week ago. I’ll let you know if that persists. … Aw freak you guys, the first thing that happened is that I feel chill. I’m writing this on a spring morning, and I look out the window and there’s not cloud in the sky, and I actually feel calmer inside. It’s not insignificant that my first impression is not about the music, but about the place it puts me in. Because this is a music blog I feel like I should be writing about the music itself. That comfortable, playful piano line that shuffles along — and is that a vibraphone? But almost my whole first impression is on an emotional level.

2 – “Never Know”: Was this or was this not cowritten with Maroon 5. Verse has nothing to draw me in — in fact, the relentless eighth notes on the guitar are a real turn-off for me. But the chorus turns that around. On a lyrical level, I get a little defensive about the “Knock knock” section about 2/3 through the song because, hi, I was a Mormon missionary for two years. And this song’s got tolerance written into its core, but makes no effort to understand people like me. And maybe I don’t make enough effort to understand overproduced fireside songs. Ok fine, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

3 – “Banana Pancakes”: Classic comfortable Jack Johnson shuffle. For a while all the good vibes I had from track one have gone away, but I think that’s more an effect of being called a zealot in the last song. “Laka ukulele/Mama made a baby” is a surprisingly fresh rhyme for me, every time. Ok, I’m disarmed. Chillax, people. (Wait! my music-snob self shouts. This guy’s a total hack! You’d hate this guy at a party!)

4 – “Good People”: “Oh the blues? Yeah I’ve totally heard of the blues a couple times.” That’s what Johnson has definitely said in at least one interview. The intro to this song isn’t doing it for me. Soft rap will keep you engaged long enough to bob your head, and a hook that you’ll whistle for a long time.

5 – “No Other Way”: As this song starts I literally don’t remember ever hearing it before. But the fret-noise slides up and down the strings are awfully reminiscent of a song I heard all of six minutes ago. Yeah, two tracks after “Banana Pancakes” I’m listening to basically the same line as an intro to this song. And… am I hearing that the guy isn’t hitting his pitches on the chorus? Yeah, I am! But — yeah, while I’m tempted to say that diminishes from the quality of the track, it actually enhances it. I like that detail a lot. Yes, I’m being serious!

6 – “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”: If I remember right, this has always been the most engaging song on the album. The rhythm hits me the right way, even if playing it safe is still the name of the game as far as the songwriting and arrangement go. The C section, which I want to be just as hooky as the A and B sections, actually loses steam. As a matter of fact I forgot that the C section even existed in this song, while the A and B sections bubble up from my subconscious every couple months. That’s revelatory of its weakness.

7 – “Staple It Together”: Another one I forgot existed. Little-known fact about me: I hate hand percussion. But this intro’s custom made to fit into an Ocean’s movie, so I can’t complain too much. Ouch, but then the chorus is just trying too hard to groove, when the verses are so effortless. I think it’s the ride cymbal that’s killing me there. I wish this one would end faster than it does.

8 – “Situations”: Oh yeah! I forgot how pretty the melody is at the beginning of this song, and the vocals sound cool with the filter on it. … Wait, that was it? That was like a minute long. I love the rhythm fadeout while the solo line stays, but… okay on to the next one.

9 – “Crying Shame”: I get it, tired game and crying shame rhyme. Le sigh, Jack. More semi-funk making this album feel more and more like a wash of gray. Chorus is ok, but it’d be better showcased if the song around it contrasted with the rest of the album some. Losing the chill vibe in my frustration with a sound that’s becoming increasingly bland.

10 – “If I Could”: Slide right up and down that fretboard. Add in the hand drums. It’s a recipe for my disliking this track. But it’s a song about people you love, and now I feel bad about being so negative. This song is making me doubt my quality as a human being. Didn’t realize JJ would get me existential.

11 – “Breakdown”: I fully expect Israel Kamakawiwo’ole to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the intro. Not a complaint, that, just an observation. The chorus to this song is really great — it breaks free of its forgettable verses, and its steady quarter notes push their way right into your memory. I don’t have “Black Star” stuck in my head anymore, that’s for sure.

12 – “Belle”: Are there really more than 11 tracks on this album? Wait, there are 14? I’m getting to the point where I can’t tell where one shuffly acoustic slog-fest ends and another begins. Oh… wait, this one is different. Actually, now I realize this the song that everybody think’s I’m playing when I pick up my guitar and play anything Brazilian. Every single time. Which gives me a bad taste in my mouth for this one. But then the guy busts out a whirlwind romantic tour of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, and a really clever English punchline. Fine, Jack. You win. That’s a good track.

13 – “Do You Remember”: Those fret-noise sliding lines actually work on this song. Please no drums. Please no percussion. Just let him sing this song alone instead of overproducing it … … … Please, take a break from the rest of how you made the rest of the album … … … All right! It’s a miracle!

14 – “Constellations”: This album wins the award for least-inspiring closing track.

Overall: Moments I would listen to this album all the way through: if I were on a road trip, if I were studying or working, or if I were sleeping. In other words, times when I really don’t want the music to get in the way. Times when the music itself should only emphasize what life is actually about. But for me, that means the music itself doesn’t matter. I could play this album at those times, or play anything that’s reasonably laid back, and just let it slide into the background. My taste is such that I like music that really sweeps my mind away, because I want to be engaged in what it took to make that stuff happen. To force myself to sit down and really listen to this album — to what amounts to a mood-inducing drone — is little more than drudgery. Is it quality for what it is? Yeah, you bet! But this is also not an album that leaves any kind of mark; it doesn’t have a life of its own. This is music that relies on you to breathe it to life by taking it along with you on the boat or to the park, on sunny days, when nothing matters. Ironically, In Between Dreams is the soundtrack to waking dreams themselves. And in the times between, it’s more a cloud, floating, existing and doing very little else.


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