Album Review: Heather Johnson, Happiness

[from MadeLoud, November 3, 2009]

At first listen, Happiness, the debut album from Atlanta-based vocalist Heather Johnson, may bring to mind countless house, trance, and ambient records from the past decade. The looped percussion, spacey pads, and upper-register vocal lines at first smack of early-00s-by-numbers, but those records (mostly) lacked something Happiness knows how to leverage to the fullest: Johnson herself.

While her voice certainly gave weight to the sometimes airy (in a good way) Ananda Project, Happiness pushes the singer’s talents to the fore and reveals just how strong a vocalist that group really had. Armed with a voice nestled comfortably between textural instrument and audiological tour guide, Johnson’s alto floats over the expectedly tasteful production by a rotating cast of DJs, engineers and generally noted house luminaries; DJ Kawasaki lends the expected dance sensibilities to “Destination” and Tomo Inoue throws a stuttering cymbal beat under Johnson’s gliding vocal line in “Home.”

Still, the bulk of production falls to Johnson’s Ananda Project co-conspirator, Chris Brann, who wisely lets his tracks’ music worth with Johnson’s lyrical motifs, rather than as mere accessories to them. Take the sensual jazz allegories of “Jazz (Sunday Morning),” Johnson’s nods to Miles Davis and John Coltane becoming playful come-ons. By layering bass chords with a slight beat syncopation rather than mere dropping everything on the tried-and-true 2 and 4, Brann turns an otherwise conventional house track into both a stylistic homage and a showcase for Johnson’s singing chops in the hook.

But where Happiness separates itself from so much of the house/nu-soul/electronic pack is not in its tracks or its tricks, but in its wholeness. Listeners may notice a certain sameness to the feel of the tracks, and in this case that works strongly in Johnson’s favor. With the ethereal pulse of the title track or Johnson’s assertive vibrato carrying a cover of Sade’s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” the disc trades muscle for mood and uses the perfectly-framed soprano to not just lift the tracks, but to carry them as well. To call Happiness a classic would be a stretch, but to call it timeless would do just fine.