Archived Arts & Entertainment

Ex Tempore: Impromptu excellence

By Chris Cooper

I first heard Johnny Irion years ago at a little venue in Charlotte. He was performing with his then quite pregnant wife Sarah Lee Guthrie, and the two of them exemplified everything that’s good about smart, latter day country/rock songwriting. With a collective family tree that includes names like Steinbeck and, well, Guthrie for Pete’s sake, that’s not really a surprise.

Jumping forward to the present finds Irion maintaining a bit of that country zest on Ex Tempore, but it’s buoyed by beautiful production and exceptional songwriting that tosses a healthy dollop of 70’s pop (think Elton and Young) into the mix. In fact, it’s tough not to think of Neil Young in Irion’s reedy vocals and eccentric lyricism. His penchant for wrapping the time-tested sentiments of love, loneliness and longing in beautifully hued arrangements and unexpected lyrical twists makes Ex Tempore an instantly engaging listen.

Besides the ethereal Beatles-esque vocal moves (albeit underpinned by sparkling alt-country approved pedal steel) that snap you to attention on the album’s opener, “Take Care,” it’s the gospel/Americana/pop of “Short Leash” that guarantees a semi-permanent residency in your CD player. It’s a beautifully worded tale of the ups and downs, sprints and stumbles that go hand-in-hand with anyone’s attempt to navigate their way through love. Treading the wire between hope and blue-tinged regret, “Short Leash” demonstrates the qualities that separate a good song from a great one. And this one’s the latter.

“Roman Candle” veers into some heady mash-up of chamber pop and twang, with a big fat hook baited by a pensive string section, swooping slide guitar and an almost pleading chorus stating, “I don’t know what I did wrong/but I know it’s catching up with me.” Two tracks later you’re greeted with the snotty, clucking guitar intro of “Madrid.” Light-hearted but not shy of content, Irion spins lines like “I’d catch a terrorist for you/I saw one in the Barcelona airport/He was standing at the Sunglass Hut/that’s all I’ve got to report.” I mean really, how can you not like a guy that can take a goofy line like that and not only make it work, but make it work so perfectly?

“Brush Yer Teeth Blues #56” takes a grounded (yet appropriately whimsical) look at parenthood, never coming off as cloying- which is often the case even when otherwise talented songwriters attempt to pen a song about their children. The line about allowing his child to sleep in a pirate suit if that’s how it’s got to be could crack a smile in even the curmudgeonliest old miser. The true-story inspired character study of “Good Cry” further illustrates Irion’s pop savvy, with the main character (a perpetually teary waitress in a diner) given the nickname “thrift store cardigan.” In print this might seem a little ambiguous, but in the context of the song, it’s perfect.

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At the core of it all is Irion’s understanding of the complexities of human experience, and his remarkable lyrical abilities dig into all the colors therein. Spiritual without ever sounding preachy, smart but never resorting to sarcasm, and most importantly, utterly tuneful in every way, there’s not a single trip-up or half baked idea to be found anywhere on Ex Tempore. It’s just that good.

And if the album’s title in any way suggests that this was a slapped together or rushed project, we should all be so lucky to produce such stunning results in a hurry as Johnny Irion does here. Sometimes strikingly original, often familiar as an old coat, this is easily one of the most pleasant musical surprises of the year. Don’t let his rep as a folkie jade your interest in any way- even if that’s part of who Irion is, the way he pulls it all together here is nothing short of brilliant.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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