The male baritone voice in rock and roll is polarizing. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is perhaps the best example of the divisive phenomenon: his guttural bellow provokes an innate reaction on first listen, and the response is usually either a distinct love or intense hate. Creed’s Scott Stapp furthered the divide by making the low vocal range instantly parodic with his constant embellishments and gaudy style. The range itself has become a meme: say, if you want to make fun of Creed, you swoop and hold a deep vibrato. With the risk of sounding ridiculous, it’s an extremely hard voice to pull off, but Paul Johnson, lead vocalist for Johnson’s Crossroad, manages to do it with convincing gusto and compelling execution on his band’s latest album, Mockingbird. When you hear Johnson for the first time, be prepared for one of the most raspy, dirty growls known to the vocal fry register, the lowest of the low.
Moving between folk, bluegrass, blues and soul, Johnson’s voice is versatile and emotive, and its rough, unrestrained rumble benefits from an exceptionally clear recording that will keep you coming back to the album, exploring the depth of his voice and its intimidating yet endearing quality. “In The Breeze” tells the story of a homesick mountain man yearning for his home in the hills, a part that’s a natural fit for Johnson, and one that probably becomes all too real on tour. Keith Minguez’ mandolin playing shines on the album, particularly on “Storm Keeps Moving In,” where his constant alternation between fluttering, chopping and picking makes his one instrument sound like three. Every track brings in new instrumentation and the constant variation keeps the album fresh until its slow-burning climax, “Wait and See,” a calming “it gets better” refrain that makes Johnson’s bearish demeanor a lot more cuddly.