Where Am I? proves that there’s more to Mike Johnson than his role as bassist for Dinosaur Jr. While remaining part of the Mascis fold, Johnson has always pursued his own vision — first as a member of the defunct Oregon punk combo Snakepit and, later, as the arranger, co-producer and guitarist on Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan’s solo records. On his quietly mournful debut, Johnson follows Lanegan’s lead, proffering sparse, darkly saturated songs of intimate allure. His rambling, whiskey-soaked baritone pinpoints Leonard Cohen and Kevin Ayers as equally clear influences; his selection of songwriters to cover (Townes Van Zandt, Lee Hazlewood, Gene Clark) displays an eclectic ear. Along with Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees (who serves as bassist, cellist, pianist and percussionist on Where Am I?) and David Krueger (violin), the guitar-playing Johnson is an understated frontman. The debut’s baleful, folky sullenness suits Johnson’s vocal delivery well; “100% Off,” which first appeared as a 45 (added to the CD as one of two bonus tracks), finds him taking a more aggressive stance. Where Am I? wallows in dejection (“Save Today” and “Separation” thrive on miserable sentiments), but Johnson turns wretchedness into a positive gesture.
The same cast returns for the intermittently rocking but consistently more richly realized Year of Mondays, joined by J Mascis (on drums), Dana Kletter of Dish and members of Juned, whose first album Johnson produced and whose bassist Leslie Hardy is Johnson’s wife. The suave calm in his voice is here illuminated by a pale dawn, broadening the appeal of an assured, gorgeous album. A bridge between adult consequence and youthful abandon, Year of Mondays — dedicated to Charlie Rich — is a treat for glumsters of all ages.