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London Sessions (Live From Abbey Road) by Haley Johnsen

In a casual demeanor more commonly found in living room performances shared with friends and family exclusively, Haley Johnsen lays into the opening chords of “Lift Me Up,” the first track in her new album London Sessions (Live From Abbey Road, 2020), and in the wake of the ensuing melody sparks a captivating flame that will last for the duration of the record’s 33-minutes of play. A subtle strut quickly turns into a galloping stomp as “Lift Me Up” fills our speakers with warm tonality, and when Johnsen begins to sing, trying to focus on anything other than her voice is next to impossible. This track sets the stage for everything that follows, starting with the frustrated “Sideways,” perfectly, and though it’s only the first of eight enigmatically surreal numbers, it’s strong enough on its own to warrant listeners’ choosing London Sessions (Live From Abbey Road, 2020) when selecting new music to spin this season.

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“Sideways” is structured like a rebel cry amidst a darkly evocative folk melody, but in the case of its tracklist successor “Feel the Water,” Haley Johnsen backs away from the stacked arrangements in favor of experimenting with old fashioned Americana of the purest variety. “Teardrop Canvas” grabbed my attention immediately upon hearing it for the first time, and not because of its brooding vocal harmony alone. In this song, Johnsen is defiantly poetic with her verses in a way that reminds me of both Howlin’ Wolf and Melanie Safka, and despite the tremendous aesthetical differences between these two influences, they seem to be perfectly amalgamated in the original delivery she’s offering up here.

If it’s swinging grooves that you’re after this March, London Sessions’ “Everything Comes Back Again” has got you covered in the form of its exuberantly youthful sway, but as fine as its unbridled rhythm is, it’s not enough to eclipse the suffocating march of the strings in “Weekend,” my favorite song on the album. “Weekend” is blues that could at once double for alternative Americana and blistering country-folk without sounding overly experimental in nature, and if you ask me, it’s the best example of Haley Johnsen’s versatility as a songwriter on the whole of this LP. She’s got the skills to be as wild with her composing as she wants, but better yet, she knows how to restrain herself from overexposing any one particular element in her style.

London Sessions (Live From Abbey Road, 2020) draws closer to its conclusion with the surreal gut-punch of a groove that powers “When I Loved You,” and in the radiant “Keep on Saying Goodbye,” Haley Johnsen brings us across the finish line with one final string of poetic verses that sear their narrative into the hearts of listeners on the back of what could be the best vocal this singer/songwriter has ever recorded. While undeniably an independent artist whose ascent through the Portland underground has truly been something to marvel at in the last five years, Johnsen is sounding like a seasoned veteran ready to embrace the success that comes with breaking through to the mainstream in London Sessions, and in time, I think this record will be regarded as a seminal milestone in her career.

John McCall

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