Album Review: Brian Johannesen — ‘Holster Your Silver’

Brian Johannesen Album Release Party w/ Ryan Joseph Anderson

The Mill — Friday, Jan. 31 at 8 p.m.

As I listened to Brian Johannesen’s Holster Your Silver this week, driving south on I-380 in the January dusk — a nearly full moon rising in the clear sky, plane contrails lining the sunset, bare trees silhouetted in the orange-pink-twilight blue — it hit me that dropping this standout album in deep winter makes all the sense in the world.

Johannesen nails his Americana and country/roots rock marks: the bangin’ Steve Earle-esque rocker, the historical miner uprising story-song, the talking blues rave-up. But the overall feel of the album is one of profound melancholy. His writing eloquently frames the topics of depression, growing old(er), tough political times, a family member’s illness and death and a general feeling that the world, and fate, might not be on your side, against a backdrop of winter in the Midwest.

The characters in these songs are struggling, looking for help and reason, uplift and meaning in a world where simply doing good, writing good songs and caring about the people around you might not be enough. Even the up-tempo numbers have names like “Tired” and “If I Thought That I Could Win.”

That said, it’s a heck of an enjoyable listen and a supremely well-crafted piece of Midwestern Americana. Johannesen’s songs are compact, well-thought-out and engaging, and the deep emotional connections, hidden musical and lyrical twists and standout musicianship take the familiar structures and forms to interesting and unusual places. Clocking in at under 33 minutes, it’s all killer and no filler. Each time I’ve gotten to the end I’ve wished there were a few more songs.

A highlight throughout are the tight arrangements and the excellent band — Iowa City stalwarts David Zollo, Bernemann brothers Matt and Ryan, Randall Davis and Brian Cooper, along with a strong cast of Chicago players including Ryan Joseph Anderson. In a genre that sometimes privileges earnestness over musical competence, these are great musicians clearly having fun playing together. Anderson’s production is clean and crisp, and while there’s often a lot going on, it’s always cohesive and in service to the songs.

Standout tracks include “Fremont,” with its outlaw and trad-country inspirations (and aspirations) cleverly name-checked in the verse and lyric-checked in the chorus, and “Music Business Blues Breakdown,” a humorously bittersweet recap of Johannesen’s time in Nashville and ongoing trials in today’s music business.

The emotional lodestones of the album, though. are the opening and closing tracks. “Somewhere Down the Line” and “Holster Your Silver” are haunting bookends that will resonate with anyone who’s ever lost a loved one or struggled to make it through a long winter. There’s uplift at the end, reminding us that if we can drop our weapons and lower our guard, there is hope and light and music in the coming thaw. “But it’s now, so holster your silver / Yeah, it’s now, the twilight of a Midwestern winter / When up from the ground / Come the red wings and fireflies to sing for me now.”

Editor’s note: Brian Johannesen is a Little Village staff member.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.