10 songs – 35 minutes
Recorded “live” in the studio on 28 February 2016 with no overdubs and no separate tracking, Trouble Blues is a short (35 minutes) but highly enjoyable slice of piano blues from the Springfield, Virginia-based Rogue Johnsen.
Featuring nine originals and one cover, Johnsen is accompanied throughout by only his piano. A one-time student of Charles Brown, Johnsen acknowledges his debt to the master by taking on “Trouble Blues”, interpreted here as a stomp “but otherwise, exactly as Charles taught me.”
Johnsen is at heart a bluesman (check out, for example, “Nightlight (Full Fool Moon)”), but as one might expect from one of Charles Brown’s students, his tastes often lean towards slower, soft-toned songs as well as touching on a range of blues-influenced genres.
The loping, slightly discordant “The Same” highlights Johnsen’s ability to stay firmly within the blues genre whilst adding passing notes and chords that sound unfamiliar and memorable at the same time. The ballad “Tides Of Time”, however, with its descending piano melody, sits more comfortably in a pop-rock world, albeit one in which Johnsen’s broken, world-weary voice ominously warns that “The tides of time upon me are banking on the shadows of my mind.”
With his rough, roadhouse voice, and an ability to pen a strikingly poetic lyric, Johnsen at times sounds like a tenor-voiced version of Tom Waits. On “The Same”, he explains that he was: “Dazed when I came staggering from someone else’s dream. That’s why I started laughing after you asked me where I’d been.” In “Midnight Prayer”, one of the few lyrically uplifting songs on the album, he promises to say a prayer every night “to keep the human wolves at bay and warm you in the frozen rain.”
There are three instrumentals on the album, the slightly jazzy shuffle of “Monkey Tumble”, the upbeat boogie-woogie of “See Band Boogie” and the yearning melancholy of “Pain Of Tenderness”.
Johnsen is a superb pianist, mixing technique and emotional commitment in equal measure, perhaps most effectively in the penultimate track, “In This World”, where Johnsen’s elegiac, mournful narrator tries to find some hope in the bleak hand he has been dealt, while Johnsen’s left hand plays a classic blues bass line and his right crafts a powerfully emotional solo.
Trouble Blues is superbly recorded by Mike Monseur, who captures a late night, spit-and-sawdust atmosphere, and Johnsen himself designed and produced the attractive CD sleeve.
Overall, this is a very entertaining and enjoyable release. Recommended.