If the sophomore jinx that supposedly curses artists’ second recordings actually exists, more should be as “cursed” as Huey Lewis and the News’s saxophonist/singer/songwriter Johnny Colla is with the release of “I Hear Voices.”
The Suisun City native’s second solo effort, following 2000’s “Lucky Devil,” is one of those rare gems that would sound just as great cuddled up with your honey on a couch in the winter (stocking stuffer – hint, hint) as well as blaring out of the car stereo on a scorching July day on the way to the beach.
The project started out as an a cappella tribute to some of the tunes that Colla loved while growing up, but eventually he added talented players and singers to augment the selections. Colla is the lead vocalist. His soulful, sincere instrument shines on each cut. Every song is rendered with obvious love and affection and, taken as a whole, the project reflects the gamut of human experience from joy to hope to loss to love. Plus, it’s a whole lotta fun.
“I Hear Voices” kicks off with “Our Prayer,” the a cappella Beach Boys song that was supposed to be the lead-off batter for their never-released “Smile” record. With glorious floating harmonies dished up by Colla and his wife Christie, it serves as a sort of invocation.
Any lingering solemnity hanging around after the enchanting opening number quickly flies out the door when the infectious, bouncy “Let Me In” kicks in. Colla’s voice, soulful and edgy yet ultimately sweet, is like an old friend. The song also features some tasty baritone sax by Johnnie Bamont.
“Lover Please” follows and the pleading lyrics paired with a jump-out-of-your-seat-and-dance melody creates a wonderful effect. The tune also happily lets the piano (Steve Lucjy) and sax take victory lap solos.
Colla slows it down on “Naturally,” a tune he penned for Huey Lewis and the News’ “Fore” album, which did not make it on the disc. It achieves that tricky balance of sounding familiar but not derivative. One of my favorite lines: “Love is a struggle and only the strong will survive, so it’s up to me and you to do what we‘ve gotta do to keep our love alive.” While it would have fit nicely on the Huey Lewis and the News’ album, it fits here, well, naturally.
Fifteen-year-old phenom Gabi Wilson, who hails from Vallejo, swings in a duet with Colla on the Chubby Checker hit “Slow Twistin’ ” and it is a ball. Again, the sax is phat and I defy anyone not to sing along.
“A Wonderful Dream” is very different from the falsetto-laden original, but certainly not lacking in heart. The haunting melody and idyllic lyrics of “So Much in Love” are handled deftly by Colla.
I have to say that having “Little Bitty Pretty One,” which features harmonized humming in its intro following the toe-tapping song “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” with its moaned title repeated throughout, was a stroke of genius. Both are smooth, affecting and the harmonies are to die for.
“A Lover’s Question,” from 1958, follows and is a delicate and sweet treat.
Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” is a song that I grew up loving and Colla’s arrangement swings. The only thing is, I expected a solo that never came. Not a replica of the iconic Brian May guitar solo in the original, but maybe a tasty piano or sax one. Still, the song doesn’t need it: that’s just my Queen snobbishness.
“Save the Last Dance” is a classy way to close out the delightful journey “I Hear Voices” takes the listener on and you are left satisfied, yet wanting more.
I understand that Colla is remixing another version of the album true to the original a cappella vision and that would be wonderful as well. Labor of love is cliché, but I tell you, with this disc, it’s almost like you can see the performers smiling. They do each song wonderful justice by adding just what is needed to service it.
While the musicianship is impeccable, the true star of the show throughout is Colla’s voice. He lives in each song.
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected]