The Ghost of John Henry, the second album by L.A. indie-folk band Sci-Fi Romance, is a different listening experience, one that puts your mind, as well your ears, to work.. Singer/songwriter Vance Kotrla has crafted a concept album based on the folk legend of John Henry. The story of the steel-drivin' railroad worker who emerged victorious against a steam hammer, only to die for his efforts, has been recounted by many artists, from Big Bill Broonzy to Johnny Cash, but this is the first steam-folk treatment.
The ten songs on John Henry combine bare-bones acoustic music and stark imagery to bring the folk tale to life, transforming the legend into a human being on a complex emotional journey. The battle pitting man versus machine is an ongoing one. John Henry’s courageous race against the steam hammer isn’t really that different than modern man’s love/hate relationship with technology.
Sci-Fi Romance's ambitious project colors in the legend with a musical storyline that’s simultaneously humane and ominous. Kotrla’s evocative baritone expresses this torment without becoming overblown. Kurt Bloom’s drumming and Jody Stark’s plaintive cello strike just the right balance with the somber guitar and Johnnie Kotrla's bass. The rigorous production by Jaron Luksa, engineer for the Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer, ties it all together.
This bittersweet concept album may sound monotonous to people weaned only on the jumpy melodies of pop-rock. John Henry is an acquired taste for such folks, but well worth the effort. While the album seems to have been written and recorded to flow as a unified whole, a few of the songs do shine as solo pieces. “We Used to Sing”, the most commercial-sounding of all the tracks, has a lively pace. It's a bit like a Steve Goodman composition, though not quite as spry. In the first “Broken World”, Kotrla sings, "It’s a broken world/But in the cracks, there’s beauty,” This could serve as the album’s mantra.
The Ghost of John Henry carries Sci-Fi Romance into new territory. Kotrla has made it a point to explore challenging subject matter and John Henry is no exception. It will be interesting to see where Sci-Fi Romance goes next.