Owen Yonce is Bonfire John, and Bonfire John is Owen Yonce. Somewhere in between there, though, is a band that makes up the live version of Bonfire John. But alone in a room inside a house is Yonce putting on many hats and making records all by his lonesome, occasionally with the help of a friend or two. Three years ago Yonce put out the Bonfire John debut, and he showed tremendous songwriting chops for a barely adult 18-year-old just graduating high school from somewhere down Carmel, Indiana way. Three years later Yonce gives us College, his messy, jangly, folksy and sometimes gritty rock n’ roll sophomore effort under the Bonfire John moniker. It’s a record filled with solid songs, done with the spirit of the Old 97s, Pavement, Jonathan Richman and even another Indiana songwriting savant named Josh Hall (aka, Thunderhawk.) There’s a laid back feeling to College that frankly is missing in a lot of current music. It has the air of a cat sitting in a living room with some drums, mics and amps set up around him. Hitting record after a swig of beer from a half warm bottle, hands still chilled from that last smoke out on the porch, he goes into opener “One Night” and proceeds to lay the track down with ease.
You see, despite the fact that Yonce is still a young dude, he writes and performs songs like a crusty lifer with tons of stories to tell under his belt. “Everybody” sounds like John Prine re-imagining Bad Company’s “Feel Like Makin’ Love” after a whiskey bender and a few uppers just to keep him upright. “My Name Is Bill” has the simple vibe of a Daniel Johnston track, but the sly smirk of Stephen Malkmus under the surface. It’s like the Moldy Peaches came out of Stockton in 1992, especially with that vocal help from Kate Haldrup. “Runaway Dog” has a ramshackle feel of early Sebadoh before easing into the nice country feel of Son Volt (at times Yonce’s vocals do resemble that of Jay Farrar’s delivery, but just sometimes.)
Here’s the thing: anyone can put a faux country twang in the voice, strum an acoustic, and pretend to be the hipster Woody Guthrie. It’s been done and is still being done (I can hear someone doing it right outside my window). But Yonce comes across as someone far more interested in making honest-to-God art through music. He leaves empty spaces in between the notes. He lets the songs breathe and expand as they leave the speakers. Listening to College, I hear a guy with a sense of humor, and ear for melody, an old soul writing though a young-ish dude. Around these parts we call that kind of songwriter the “real deal.” You can’t write songs like “To The Light,” “You Haven’t Got to Leave” and “Wanting You” without possessing that essence of the true artist. Proof? Just hit play on College and see for yourself.
There are so many artists Bonfire John’s College puts me in mind of: Pavement, Old 97s, Wilco, Son Volt and, at times, even a drunken, lo-fi Jayhawks. But give Yonce and Bonfire John one more album and it’s simply gonna sound like Bonfire John. College is a hell of a record.
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