Venus Isle has few surprises, which is both the best and worst thing
about the album. It's slick, overproduced, or, as described with a rose-colored
pen by the record company, "polished beyond perfection." Johnson's lyrics
approach new-age hokey. His thin, breathy singing voice regularly sounds
forced, and his aural soundscaping can become bothersome. But you know what?
Big deal because it's always been that way. You generally buy Eric Johnson
albums to hear him play the guitar; and in as much as that's the case, then
there are some benefits to Johnson's perfectionism. The playing on "Manhattan,"
for instance, is impeccable. The song opens with the signature melody, a
delicate, clean, Wes Montgomery-inspired riff, then Johnson plays that against
lines with thick, warm tones. Throw in a solo that's remarkable in its
sparseness, and you have vintage Johnson (which only makes sense because the
song is at least a decade old). Actually, most of the guitar work on the
instrumentals is damn impressive; but the melodies themselves don't have the
hook of a "Trademark" or the drive of a "Zap." Plus there's just a bit much
ambient filler: "Venus Isle," "Song For Lynette," and "Venus Reprise." The
tribute, "SRV," makes obvious the difference between the two greatest
guitarists this town has produced. Stevie Ray Vaughan was pure soul, Johnson is
finesse. That doesn't mean that Johnson's playing is passionless, it's just
when you polish something that much, it becomes a little dull.
HH 1/2 -- Michael Bertin