Album Review: Johanna Samuels – Excelsior!

Posted: by The Editor

Excelsior! is the tender and charismatic sophomore record from LA-via-NYC songwriter and singer Johanna Samuels, out now on Mama Bird Recording Co. Produced by Sam Evian and recorded in 2019 at his upstate NY cabin/studio outfit known as Flying Cloud, Excelsior! is brimming with elegance and subtle proficiency. Samuels’ songs are wildly perceptive and as a writer, she’s keen on examining her interpersonal relationships with grace and in full view of her shortcomings.

Four of the record’s ten tracks are named for the individuals they address, and over Samuels’ own steady floor of Rhodes pads, her band’s melismatic guitar styling and earthy percussion, and supported by vocal contributions by singers including Courtney Marie Andrews, Olivia Kaplan, and Lomelda’s Hannah Read, Samuels’ relationships fall apart and back together through her holistic, oft-conversational storytelling.

The album’s opener, “Sonny,” is a masterclass in candor, where sparse percussion punctuates some of the record’s most aching admissions — I want to be alone / more than I want to be alone with you — and while there’s no named figure in “Nature’s Way,” the track is similarly pointed, describing a well-known power struggle between love and ambition and the prospect of commitment. The parade of slow-burning hits continues through “High Tide for One” and “All is Fine” — the former a shimmering refraction of Samuels’ experience watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify at the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the latter an Elliott Smith-tinged jam about making peace with the bitter edges of a love gone wrong. “Song for Sid” is asymmetrical and musically intriguing, and lyrically, it’s deeply relatable to anyone who has ever worked retail to support their creative pursuits. “Julie” is a potent mix of devastating and catchy, lushly padded with a chorus of backing vocals and swirling reverb on the chord changes.

Samuels’ croon has the warmth one is hard-pressed to describe without using clichés. In her perspective, there’s a quiet confidence. While the cathartic utility of refracting interpersonal experiences through the lens of song is well-maintained, Samuels’ often keeps digging after coming to a new conclusion. On Excelsior! Samuels’ sees herself in a new light not characterized exactly by what she is to others or who they are to her, but by the sentiment of who she is to herself. Samuels’ is a master communicator via her songs — where the emotional intelligence in her lyricism and the warmth in her timbre color in the stories of her life and relationships with vulnerability and grace.

The record’s title is an expression Samuels’ late grandfather would use when signing off letters and emails, meaning “ever upward.” It’s entirely fitting of the emotional expanse and arc of Excelsior!’s ten songs, and to me, Samuels has made a record that accomplishes exactly what she describes here: “that’s what I wish for everyone: to grow from listening with more empathy and from hearing each other out. I hope this record makes people want to be gentler with each other and themselves.”

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Emma Bowers | @emmaebowers

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