IN THE KEY OF SORROW : Whether Singing of Life or Love, Freedy Johnston Takes the Grim View

Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Not every character on Freedy Johnston's latest album, "This Perfect World," is paralyzed by guilt or grief, or flattened by failure or regret. The protagonists of "Two Lovers Stop" seem to be making the best of a bad situation, but then again, they're dead.

It says something about Johnston's sorrowful view of life that the only way he finds for his characters to escape their troubles is via a romantic death leap: "Two lovers stop their hearts, better than to be apart," Johnston sings, tuning his distinctively reedy, naturally melancholy voice to a note of heartfelt elegy.

The song, with its traditional, Romeo and Juliet scenario, is one of the most straightforward and formulaic to be found on last year's "This Perfect World" and the 1992 release, "Can You Fly," the two albums that together have established Johnston as one of the best '90s-vintage additions to the singer-songwriter's guild.

Most of the time, Johnston distinguishes himself by not letting his characters off the hook so easily. His tunefully crafted, moderately rocking pop songs become vivid through subtle, detailed portraiture of people trapped in the aftermath of misfortune, or suffering the lingering consequences of their own character flaws.

That subtlety is one of Johnston's greatest virtues at a time when subtlety isn't exactly in fashion in popular entertainment. While the makers of "Natural Born Killers" and "Pulp Fiction" reveled in their ability to spray blood gaudily across the movie screen, Johnston stays more in line with the aesthetics of ancient Greek tragedy, in which the most terrible and gory things might happen to people, but always offstage.

During the course of "This Perfect World," a woman is flattened by an automobile, another is either done away with by her husband or driven by him to do away with herself, and a third is sexually molested by a priest. Johnston has the storytelling skills to make all of it happen almost between the lines.

In each case, it is not the moment of horror, but its aftermath that intrigues Johnston. The mechanics of sexual abuse don't concern him in the two-part portrait of "Evie's Tears" and "Evie's Garden." The songs reveal how the trauma has left her frozen with guilt and fear, and consequently has frozen the life of the narrator who loves her.

The man in "Across the Avenue" has also stopped living while still alive. Consumed by thoughts of the lover who was run down in front of him, he plays her favorite song, thinks he sees her walking the street where she died, and waits for the day when "I'll come to meet you on the other side."

There may be a bit of Johnston himself in the three-song series "Gone Like the Water," "Disappointed Man" and "I Can Hear the Laughs," in which a small-town boy goes to the big city, guiltily pawns family treasures to stay afloat there, and finally returns in defeat: "I can hear the laughs when they find I've fallen down again . . . and it hurts so bad I have to smile."

That may have been Johnston's worst fear when he left Kansas in 1985 to make his way as a musician in New York. The pawning of a patrimony to pursue a dream is in fact a part of his story. To finance "Can You Fly," he had to sell the Kansas farm he'd inherited from his grandfather.

The resulting album told that story, in "Trying to Tell You I Don't Know," while expressing Johnston's doubts as to whether the musical progress he was making was worth the sacrifice. "The Lucky One," his memorable portrait of a hopeless Las Vegas gambler convinced that the next pull of the one-armed bandit will be the one that pays off, seemed to resonate with Johnston's own story.

Johnston may no longer have a farm to retreat to, but his gamble has netted returns. He has critical acclaim and a major record deal ("This Perfect World" is on Elektra; "Can You Fly" and his lesser 1990 debut, "The Trouble Tree," are both on the New Jersey independent label Bar/None). The Adult Album Alternative radio format loves him, and lately VH1 has even been playing the video for his song "Bad Reputation."

His show Sunday at the Coach House will be his first Orange County date in a band setting. A full-band show at Bogart's in Long Beach a few years ago showed that Johnston can bring some rock brawn to songs that are almost always melancholy but often sharp-edged at the same time.

In previous acoustic appearances at the Coach House, on one of the "In Their Own Words" songwriters' bills and as an opener for Cowboy Junkies, fans prevailed upon Johnston to sing the first song he ever wrote, a dopey ditty called "Sparky, the Heroic Dog." In a perfect world, he would have had beginner's luck; if he's going to have a perfect concert, however, he'll muzzle that particular pup and stick to his frequently perfect songs about characters chained to life's doghouses.


What: Freedy Johnston.

When: Sunday, March 5, at 8 p.m., with the Silos.

Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road; exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza, on the right.

Wherewithal: $15.

Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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