No musical release happens in a vacuum. Pieces can be appreciated independently, but context always influences the way that an artist provides an album or song to the listener. With that in mind, how do we parse the circumstances of Johnny “Itch” Fox’s debut full length? As the frontman of London-based The Kings Blues he was a rambling storyteller whose band fused ska, punk and acoustic influences into enjoyable jaunts. Now on his solo album The Deep End, he throws himself into a wild maelstrom of hip-hop, pop and electronic music. With guests like Adam Lazarra of Taking Back Sunday, and Matisyahu, the album feels high-profile before the first note is even played. Whether Itch can succeed in this realm is another story.
The Deep End kicks off with “Life Is Poetry” featuring vocals from Goldfinger frontman John Feldmann (who, oddly enough, signed Itch to Red Bull Records). The track plunks through a quick piano intro before bludgeoning the listener with a chunky arena rock guitar riff and a heavily affected drumline underneath Itch’s aggressively rapped verse. Feldmann’s chorus loops melodically over half-time drums – a confusing contrary to the heavy-thumping pulse of the verse. From “Life Is Poetry” forwards, many of the songs are distractingly bipolar. The grooving, staccato string verses of “Bottom of a Glass” are abstractly sandwiched between upbeat strummed choruses. Rather than capitalizing on the energy of Itch’s delivery, the song stumbles as it diverges towards two different goals – reaching neither.
With a wealth of synthesized instrumental options available, it seems like more often than not the “select all” button was held down during production. “Sun Go Down” whizzes through a pulsing, fast-programmed beat before breaking down into an almost xylophone-like melody and a dubstep beat reminiscent of the ska undertones that Itch knows well. While the elements may work at times individually, as a whole it’s hard not to feel like there’s way too much going on. With its charging house electronica intro and affected vocals sitting next to random strums, “Like I’m On Drugs” suffers from a similar syndrome. The odd arrangements don’t tread near conscious experimentation, but instead seem wildly random at best and gimmicky at worst.
On “Not My Revolution” Itch relates the twists and turns of his career over a sparse backbeat with some success. The verses are subdued and the beautifully sung chorus from BC Jean stands apart from other songs thanks to its reliance on the vocals instead of a mess of instrumental parts. Itch is most genuine when talking about his connection to the music he makes. Despite simple rhyming, the song holds together well thanks to its dedication to ballad-like structure and lack of stylistic curveballs. Unfortunately other tracks suffer from a lack of similar coherence.
Front to back, the album plays out like a book of messily told short stories. Themes may crop up across different sections, but the majority of the pieces are individual attempts to represent a largely independent idea. Itch struggles to write tactfully within each line. His emotion comes across as relatively genuine, and the delivery is fine, but in hip-hop verbosity, wordplay and creativity are what set the best apart. Where others use their words as tools to craft and reform the situations and emotions, Itch often reverts to the basic and the cliché to make his point. The production mirrors the lyricism, as the pop structures often collapse on themselves as they try to assert themselves as something different. The Deep End‘s most indicative track is the Matisyahu guest spot “Laugh”. It’s a bubbly, plinking track that would excel in its poppy positivity if not for Itch’s shouts of “turn this one the fuck up!” and “if you’re young and you’re drunk put your hands up / if you don’t give a fuck put your hands up!” It’s wholly unnatural, oddly calculated, and very difficult to listen to and appreciate genuinely.