On first listen, John Southworth leaves the uninitiated feeling slightly dizzy and confused; like an almost cinematically weird guy doing weirdly cinematic songs in odd, cinematic presentations. Imagine Greg Keelor, for example, singing Kurt Weill over mod/indie pit orchestra, with brasses, and occasionally running a stiff index finger over his larynx as he sings. The listener does one of two telling things with this confusion: they reject it as pointless self-indulgence, or they listen again. Those who decide upon the former return to what they already know; those who decide upon the latter will listen to this album again and again, and more joyously each time.
As a transplanted Brit son of a music industry family, Southworth has clearly been a student of Pop culture all of his life. But not the hyperaccessible, media-friendly ‘pop’ that wins on awards shows around the media world. Rather, he has borne up the torches of influences as diverse as Herb Alpert, the aforementioned Weill, Elvis Costello, Herman’s Hermits, Ween, and perhaps some of the latter Beach Boys, then synthesized these with an undying devotion to melody and imagery, and crafted an art all his own. Like all good art, it is challenging, inspired, risky, and stylistically unique to the artist. And as is typical of artists, he is self-effacing about his process: “For me, my pop music has always been old pop music. I’m just trying to write something new on top of it.”
Southworth’s music is a jumble of dichotomies, often superimposed over one another: melody superimposed over dissonance, sound effects almost randomly splashed over a structured theme, the old-and-classic against the young-and edgy. The effect, far from the initial I-dunno, is powerful. The repeated listener is stricken both by the starkness of his lyrical style (“I want you to take pictures of me crying”), and by the carefree melodicism and easy drama of their delivery, seemingly oblivious to or at least respectful of, the pseudochaos underneath. This metaphor carries through the artist’s entire being, and it clearly shows: he is universally reviewed as brave, weird, ‘wonderfully eccentric’, and bizarre, but never in derogatory terms.
Banff Springs Transylvania is a challengingly infectious album, with a characteristically personal title: “I guess I feel a little like the Banff Springs Hotel” says John. “I consider myself to be a rather strange European structure stuck in the Canadian wilderness.” Well said, and well done.