Street Sounds: Johnson’s sound rings pure

Betty Johnson releases her second album and reviewer Dean Gordon-Smith gives it a thumbs up

North Okanagan singer/songwriter Betty Johnson’s second album, Saving My Heart, is a sunny sounding recording done during a period of loss for Johnson. It testifies to the transformative power of music.

Johnson, an alumnus of the George Ryga Centre’s songwriting workshop, sounds energized and jazzily upbeat. Although unintentional, the brightness and levity of Johnson’s material recalls the cha-cha mood of Sergio Mendez.

The fundamental theme of Saving My Heart is love songs set to laid back acoustic sounds. This direction lends itself to ballads, but Johnson favours a rootsy/folk/jazz mood that has a relaxed swing. This is enhanced by the subtle work of guitarist Neil Fraser and stand up bassist Bill Lockie, whose interplay is tasteful and vibrant. They complement Johnson’s songs and vocal intuitively, giving the recording more of a combo feel than that of singer and back-up players.

Johnson’s voice is honey-toned and friendly, never pushed and usually relaxed.  She favours a pure sound that merges comfortably with the woody ring of the instrumentation. Her songs get sheen from the production work of Andrew Smith, who keeps the tracks clear and uncluttered by unneeded adornment.

Her compositions shine when placed in simple settings — Johnson’s vocal is an ease-inducing entity and the standout songs (Pictures, Who) carry reflective moods, straight ahead arrangements and lyrical clarity.

Two tracks that depart from the cheerful nature of Saving My Heart are Wildflowers and Nine. Wildflowers has an old world air running through it that sends a chill to the recording. It’s a startling departure that jumps out of its surroundings, as does Nine which has a dramatic vibe that brings a dark side out of Johnson’s voice and music. These tracks have a haunting quality that adds an edge to the gentler themes, shaking things up in a good way.

Saving My Heart is a well-realized and coherent collection of tasteful songs and sweet vocals.

Dean Gordon-Smith is a musician in the North Okanagan and longtime columnist for The Morning Star, appearing every Wednesday.