Somewhere between the rustic Louisiana lifeblood and the dreamy California surf lies Killer Whale. Coming from the brainchild of singer-songwriter Thomas Johnson, this newest project from the Baton Rouge native emerged under the radar in late 2013. Killer Whale performed in different formations in and around Austin, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge before slipping into the studio to record the LP Ocean Blood with producer and drummer Scott Sibley.
Ocean Blood is a nomad of the finest variety, much like its creator. Johnson wanders between New Orleans, Austin, and San Francisco, bearing the melodic scars all that travel brings him. A mixture of folk rock, psychedelic electronica, with touches of surf rock and Caribbean fare, Ocean Blood doesn’t subscribe to any one camp. Instead, it exudes them all.
It’s a sound kaleidoscope.
With that kind of concoction, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the songs would be a melee, an atonal mishmash that harkens back to the days of being different for different’s sake. Under the leadership of another musician such might be the case, but Killer Whale melds everything together in the name of freaky good fun. From the album’s opening track, “Dawn,” Killer Whale opens the door to a proverbial new day–replete with a new sound–which blends these competing styles together to create something really odd and really addictive. It’s like awakening in the middle of someone else’s fantastical dream.
Track four off the album, “I Know These Things,” aims to give Father John Misty’s hallucinogen-fueled “I’m Writing a Novel” a run for its money. The song begins with all the makings of a campfire song, before briefly segueing into an underwater jam even the crabby Sebastian would enjoy, and finally settling on an up-tempo synth-infused honky tonk that never quite loses its connection to the sea.
What grounds this imaginative album is Johnson’s songwriting prowess. With a history steeped in relaxed tempos, pure-hearted guitar, and vocal delays or doubling that create an expansive mood, Johnson brings a lot to the songwriting table. By now it seems fair to call him something of a Louisiana staple. He spent years gigging around New Orleans in one form or another, either playing in friends’ bands or his own. He eventually released two albums with his project Thomas Johnson and the People.
Whether Johnson knew it yet or not there existed the faint hints of Killer Whale in It’s Okay, I’ll Die Too, his last album with Thomas Johnson and the People. The second track on that album, “For Tomorrow,” gets closest to the rhythms and synths that take precedence with Killer Whale’s sound. “Wait a Little While” off Ocean Blood picks up on similar tempos and guitar arrangements, but mingles those classic Americana sounds with synths and a heavier bass line provided by Myles Weeks, creating a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation between Johnson’s former and current musical identities.
With Killer Whale, Johnson sheds whatever stability he brought to his previous music like a second skin. But that’s not to say Ocean Blood is out of control. It’s just not predictable, and that creative uncertainty produces something wholly interesting.
Three songs coming in at one minute or less intersperse the album’s major tracks. They are the bizarre moments of Killer Whale’s creativity let loose. “Look At Us (With Our Feathers)” is an existential question asked against cheerfully sour synths and a proud bass line that feels closest to bohemian R&B, if such a thing exists.
The eponymous track rolls like the very ocean for which it’s named. Beginning with the makings of a stylized dive bar jukebox sound, it retains that structure while the melody–tinged with Richard Scott Lebell’s organ–rolls towards the shore and back again, the waves breaking in a heartfelt longing for an answer. It’s one of the most powerful songs on the album for its quiet ache, and the stunning execution Killer Whale achieves exploring that feeling.
Although Ocean Blood was a quiet end-of-year release in 2014, the creative potential it holds promises an interesting listening journey that deserves greater fanfare. And if you find the album appealing, just wait until you see Killer Whale perform live.
Favorite tracks: “Ocean Blood” and “Giant Waves”