Awkward and beautiful

CD Spotlight

Past Freedy, future Rundman

Over the years, the sound of Freedy Johnston's records has grown more normal. He may not have lost any of his songwriting chops, but the weird rough edges of his voice - one of the things that earned him fans in the first place - have been polished.

So it's a real treat for fans to hear The Way I Were (BarNone), a collection of demos from 1986 to 1992, all early versions of songs that never made it onto disc. That weird Freedy is back in full force: "I got the papers right here," he asserts quiveringly in the second track, just before tying one on at the Trouble Tree, a bar familiar from his first LPs. Like any collection of this sort, there are (sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing) curveballs: "Happy Birthday" is five minutes of awkward salutation and response. But tunes such as "Captain Astro" illustrate a bit of nostalgia that straddles the awkward/beautiful fence that in the early '90s practically defined this songwriter.

You can hear an echo of Johnston's voice - an odd mix of desperation and playfulness - on such tracks as "The Serious Kind," on the recent album by Jonathan Rundman, Public Library (Salt Lady Records). Rundman's got more down-home Americana to him than Johnston (the album was produced by the Silos' Walter Salas-Humara), but the connection is there. You have to love a musician who starts his record with a heartfelt and convincing endorsement of "Smart Girls" and later imagines himself a noble librarian. Those low-key anthems are fun, but Rundman proves he can paint a picture as well. "Second Language" expresses a recent immigrant's mix of disappointment and hope; "Cuban Missile Crisis" finds a man trapped across town from his lover while "wondering if the showdown would begin." Rundman may be largely unknown outside the Midwest, but Public Library demonstrates there's no reason for his anonymity.

John DeFore