I don't know how much time Johnny Irion spent on his new album, Ex Tempore. He's a veteran, after all. His early '90s band, Queen Sarah Saturday, signed to Thirsty Ear while he was still in high school, and he's recorded a couple of albums with his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie. But Ex Tempore is Irion's first solo release since 2001's Unity Lodge. Still, the whole affair feels easy, basking in its own tossed-off effortlessness. Maybe these dozen tracks were pored over (and their crisp, polished warmth means the people behind the recording board make nothing sound hasty or underdeveloped), but they sound vibrant, fresh and organic, as if performed for the first time five minutes before they were recorded.
Irion's voice is a high, thin tenor, and it lends itself to that immediate effect. It's occasionally reedy, and on folky tracks like "Always Lookin' Out"—with its '70s Laurel Canyon vibe and jazzy, lilting melody—it recalls Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon. That's certainly not a bad thing. This album, effortless though it may be, is alluring because of its unabashed spirit and adventurous combinations. Irion's style often evokes Neil Young ("Roman Candle," "1000 Miles an Hour"), but that's hardly his only touchstone: "Madrid" is a juicy little rock 'n' roll rave-up with horns that add a taste of Stax to an Allman-inflected solo. "Short Leash" plies Memphis gospel-soul, and the thoughtful "Fragile Humans" has a CSNY-worthy vibe, abetted by horns, Wurlitzers and synthesizers.
As predictable and staged as alt.country has become of late (Stonesy riff, anyone?), Ex Tempore stands out for its fresh-squeezed sensibility and imaginative blends.
Johnny Irion & The Mattress (Zeke Hutchins and Jay Brown) play the Cat's Cradle Saturday, Sept. 15, at 8:30 p.m. Jule Brown and Bull City open. Tickets are $10.