This determinedly indolent Connecticut combo incorporated the best and worst elements of post-Sonic Youth guitar rock into its fuzzy, feedback-encrusted worldview. The quartet’s undeniable cleverness and occasional virtuosity could prompt a pleasant buzz, but St. Johnny’s overwhelming lethargy too often prevented those rudimentary ideas/riffs from maturing into the kind of songs that last longer than a quick contact high.
The band’s initial EP releases are less encumbered by slackness, if only because the 7-inch format forces a slightly tighter focus. The self-released debut is a gauze-filtered look at suburbia from singer/guitarist Bill Whitten’s modern stoner point of view — which essentially means that his proclamations about not caring about anything are less nihilistic than they are just plain bored. On Go to Sleep, Whitten’s lope is a little less languorous, but he’s still possessed with a remarkably hermetic attitude that allows him (on the instantly catchy title track) to recognize “I know we’re in trouble…I know we’re in deep,” only to come to the conclusion that a nap is the answer to all his problems. High as a Kite compiles the EPs; the US edition adds three previously unreleased tracks.
Luddites might disagree, but St. Johnny was wise to skulk out of its basement bunker and record Speed Is Dreaming in a proper studio, as it allows Tom Leonard’s controlled, methodical guitar sculpting to be appreciated on its own plentiful merits. Leonard tends to rely heavily on one trick — adding layer upon layer, only to pull the whole pile out at once — but that stratagem truly accentuates Whitten’s disconnected murmurings. As made manifest in songs like “I Give Up,” “You Can’t Win” and “Down the Drain,” Whitten inhabits a space where defeat is victory and ambivalence conquers all. He strings together phrases lackadaisically enough that you never forget just how jaded he is about the process — just in case you do, there’s a song called “I Hate Rock and Roll” — but as borne out by thrown-away lines like “as the streets creep by/as usual I’m appalled,” he’s got his finger on the (fading) pulse of America the Bored.
Although Leonard’s departure (he was replaced by Jim Roberts) didn’t change the band’s direction per se, the sound of Let It Come Down — almost unrecognizable as St. Johnny — isn’t nearly as suitable a vehicle for transporting Whitten’s ennui. As a matter of fact, the album is the aural equivalent of trying to cross the Atlantic in a Volvo. Laden with Pavement-lite shambling (“Bluebird”) and hip-hop/skronk hybrids so lame even Sonic Youth wouldn’t touch ’em (“Scuba Diving”), the album quickly passes laid-back on its way to the obnoxiously slapdash stage. The instrumental presence of tangent-seeking pals like Mercury Rev’s Grasshopper and Dave Fridmann (who engineered and co-produced with Whitten) doesn’t help matters.
After St. Johnny broke up at the end of 1995, Whitten launched a new band, Grand Mal, with a mostly solo fuzz-rock EP. The tone of the self-titled six-song EP is encouragingly aggressive, thanks to Whitten’s rediscovery of the power of punctuating disjointed feedback bursts and a few forays into dance culture (à la Primal Scream) buoyed by the soulful belting of Carmen Quinones.