There’s a beautiful moment on “Stage,” the first (and arguably, best) track from Johnny Mainstream’s sophomore album—entitled Ghost Broadway—where the voices of band members Matthew Maynes and Laura Sabourin begin to trade off on the melodic line. Neither voice is perfect—Maynes sounds like Conor Oberst’s long-lost cousin, and Sabourin’s instrument radiates with quivers and shakes, occasionally even wandering off key—but when the two join together on this song, it just works. “Stage” burns with restrained longing, buoyed along by folky instrumentation, propped up by an atmospheric electric guitar line—one that feels culled directly from the Gaslight Anthem’s first record—and structured around its vocalists in a way that, for whatever reason, recalls that ‘90s radio hit you forgot existed.
And that’s pretty much the game Johnny Mainstream play throughout. Like so many bands we’ve seen lately, these guys work the throwback angle for all its worth. We get classic heartland rock--by way of Brian Fallon or Brandon Flowers, Americana flourishes--by way of I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning, and enough booze-fueled confessionals to make The Hold Steady proud. First single, “Whiskey for Dinner,” is a propulsive, sing-along rocker, loaded with gang vocals and communal sensibility (again, Sink or Swim comes to mind), while the rollicking title track features a slinky bass-line, a classic piano reverie, a martial drum-beat build, and a charismatic, glam-rock-ready vocal from Maynes. These are songs that feel innately familiar from first listen, but not in a way that strikes as bland or derivative—even though derivative might be a perfectly justified descriptor for Johnny Mainstream’s music. No, at its best moments, Ghost Broadway strikes the balance between new and old, between nostalgic and refreshing, and those moments probably have the capability to land on more than a few playlists for people around this website.
The sound doesn’t always hit home though. Maynes’ voice is too limited to give the band a lot of sonic territory to work with, and the record’s 13-song, hour-long runtime means it probably overstays its welcome a bit. The middle section run of “No Noise,” “Cheap Guitars,” and “Pot of Gold,” in particular, never seems to go anywhere—a shame after the disc's strong opening. That trio also seems to represent a dividing line of sorts for the record, opening up a more subdued, acoustic-based second half. “dc” is a lovely, road-weary piece of balladry (and “You grabbed my arm and told me the stars were just headstones for the Gods” is probably the album’s best line), while “Whiteboard” apes the chord progression and feel of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” for another satisfying duet between Maynes and Sabourin. Meanwhile, should-be closer “Team Electric” is an ambitious, four-part suite that takes cues from both Green Day’s American Idiot and Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, and "Scarecrow" is another slow-burning highlight, with a grungy electric guitar line the gives it welcome momentum through its six minute cycle.
Ghost Broadway isn’t quite a great album on its own, but there are so many indicators here that Johnny Mainstream is capable of greatness that I’m almost willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Sure, the album is too long. And it gets a bit repetitious in the middle. And the sequencing could probably have used a few change-ups. And the production, as great as it sounds throughout, loses a few points in te last minute for dropping the organ swells and harmonica lines in the actual closer (“Northern Terminus”) to a level in the mix that sort of truncates the song’s epic build. But there are moments throughout this record—a striking piece of imagery here, an electric guitar line there, a great chorus on one song, or a nostalgically resplendent atmosphere on the next—that really make it feel as if this band has something special to bring to the table. Give it a shot.