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More rock star. Less Woody Guthrie. Chris Johnson. Photo by Jeff Prince.

Lead singer Chris Johnson lowered the keys when arranging songs on Telegraph Canyon’s just-released third album You from Before. It was a subtle but important decision. Johnson’s razor-thin tenor anchors the sound. But singing at the top of your vocal range can rag your voice. Do it every night for weeks on end, you get croaky. Lowering song keys was a utilitarian decision. But it worked on an artistic level as well. Johnson’s voice maintains its high-pitched, ghostly presence while coming alive with tone and power.

Being a late starter in the music game means Johnson’s still learning the ins and outs of writing, playing, singing, touring, and surviving, even though he’s been supporting himself mostly through music for close to 10 years.

“The last album, if I was sick on the road, which happens, it was really difficult for me” to sing the songs, he said. “I didn’t understand they were going to be this difficult.”

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Throw in drinking, smoking, and late-night gabfests, and touring was hell on his throat. Johnson scaled back on a few bad habits and looks fit and happy these days.

“I didn’t smoke cigarettes on the road, and there is more focus on being healthy all the time,” he said.

A cigarette hung from his mouth during sound check before headlining a recent Friday on the Green. But, hey, Fort Worth is home. He can smoke at home. The show that night was exceptional. The seven-piece band was tight and focused. As the sun sank, red and blue lights painted the stage. Johnson kept his sunglasses on through the dark and looked cool. A few hundred people stretched out across the grass of Magnolia Green, many hearing the new songs for the first time. Everyone hung on until the last note. Johnson has retained his flair for creating schizophrenic, ear-wormy folk anthems with hooks that don’t let go. Some of the new songs would have fit comfortably on the old albums, but most are more beat-driven and whirring, a noticeable departure from the past. Johnson looked thin, clean, clipped, and shined. More rock star. Less Woody Guthrie.

Telegraph Canyon became alt-folk wunderkinds with the release of their second album, The Tide and the Current (2009). “Shake Your Fist” is a personal favorite, but I enjoy all the songs. The CD still gets spun often around my house, particularly later in the evening. Something about the repetitive structures spiced with various plinks, plunks, and musical wizardry puts me in a deep, pleasant, spacey trance. Critics made comparisons to Neil Young due to Johnson’s voice and Arcade Fire due to numerous band members playing multiple instruments with plenty of dynamics. But Telegraph created an instantly recognizable sound, with quiet, barely-there compositions suddenly exploding into epic ballads and with Johnson’s eerie voice sounding lonely and uplifting at once. Their songs got played on radio stations across the country. Movies and TV shows included cuts. Rolling Stone raved about “irresistible choruses.” NPR noted the “brooding urgency” and “ethereal intimacy” of the music. Telegraph Canyon became Fort Worth’s new darling.

You from Before is a solid reminder of the controlled power and quiet grace that captured fans’ imaginations, going back to All The Good News (2007). Johnson & Co. have added more grooves and gotten soulfully funky on some songs, but the material is not a radical departure. Johnson has stretched his songwriter wings without morphing into an entirely new species. Whatever he did is working. The Jamaican-tinged first single “Why Let It Go” earned more than 110,000 Spotify plays in the first week after its release.

“Those are really big numbers compared to anything we had happen before,” Johnson said. “They translate to people giving us better shows on the road and people coming to our pages. The college market has a lot to do with the bands in this midlevel world of touring and doing shows.”

The new record recently debuted at No. 14 on the CMJ college radio chart.

“To put it in perspective,” he said, “Wilco was No. 7.”

After his first decade as a songwriter and singer, Johnson is feeling pretty good. Each album has gotten better as he and his bandmates figure out this thing called music.

“These songs are more mature in general,” Johnson said. “I’m real proud of the record.”

 

[box_info]Telegraph Canyon album release
8pm Fri at Granada Theater, 3524 Greenville Av, Dallas. $15-24. 214-824-9933.[/box_info]

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