The track record for sports figures-turned-musicians is even less promising than for actors-turned-musicians. But after pro-surfing prodigy Jack Johnson split his skull on a coral reef in 1993 at the age of 17 – a near-fatal mishap that took 150 stitches to repair – he got more serious about music, and eventually scored a fluke semi-hit with amateur surfer/blues-rap pinup G. Love (the Johnson-penned ”Rodeo Clowns,” a duet off G. Love & Special Sauce’s 1999 ”Philadelphonic”). Johnson’s 2001 debut, ”Brushfire Fairytales,” recorded during time off from his day job directing surf films, was a quick success in pipeliner circles. But with boostering by pal/collaborator Ben Harper, Harper’s manager – turned – label macher JP Plunier, and megacorp mentor Universal, its fire kept burning, and it remarkably passed the million-sold mark last January.
The appeal is obvious: Johnson is a charming Hawaiian haole boy who delivers catchy melodies in a sweet, high tenor with an acoustic guitar, a shadowy hip-hop backbeat, and a supremely chilled-out vibe. The stylistic touchstone is unplugged classic rock (Hendrix’s ”Castle Made of Sand,” the Beatles’ ”I Will,” Marley’s ”Redemption Song”), and while the vocal similarities to jam-band peers Harper and Dave Matthews are striking, Johnson’s songs are, frankly, more instantly likable than theirs, more tuneful and less earnest. Chalk it up to the slacker soul born of a life of ocean playtime on an island known for the world’s finest marijuana.
On and on takes the same minimalist, acoustic-trio approach as ”Brushfire,” and Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato Jr. has the sense to leave things alone. There are signs of rhythmic sharpening. ”Wasting Time” and the lead single, ”The Horizon Has Been Defeated,” are two of the most irresistible Caucasian reggae romps since Paul Simon’s ”Mother and Child Reunion” – not surprising, since Jamaican grooves are musical religion in Hawaii. There’s a more subtly syncopated, G. Love-less version of ”Rodeo Clowns.” And ”Symbol in My Driveway,” complete with lapping waves and a chorus that forgets to show up, is a dropout anthem that’d do Stephen Malk-mus proud: ”Got my plans in a Ziploc bag/Let’s see/How unproductive we can be.”
But this isn’t just ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fluff-balling. Johnson’s worldview is more Zen than stoner, and while it’s easy to dismiss observations like ”People are lonely/Only animals with fancy shoes” from a guy who has probably never owned closed-toe footwear, his plainspoken invectives against oil dependence (the aforementioned ”Horizon”), TV (”Fall Line”), and lockstep line-toeing (”Medi-ocre Bad Guys”) show a man more culturally engaged than you’d suspect. And if ”on and on” sounds better now than ”Brushfire” did in 2001, credit context. After all the cable-news war-cheerleading and the suspicion that, amid the carnage, no one is telling the truth on any side, Johnson’s simple, if occasionally simplistic, truths feel near revelatory, his brand of musical balm near essential. He may not be talkin’ about a revolution, but that’s not everybody’s job.