Local favorite Jack Johnson knows his niche, and for that alone we must grant him a bit of credit. Folksy vocals, lazy guitar strumming and campfire-ready melodies define his latest, In Between Dreams, just as they did on 2002’s Brushfire Fairytales and again on 2003’s On and On. Lucky for Johnson, he’s a one-trick pony who happens to have a marketable trick. While In Between Dreams does succeed in not sounding over-produced, it almost begs to be tweaked just a little. Johnson’s lyrics embody the carefree surfer dude ideally, yet somewhere in between his merry ruminations about “making banana pancakes” and his thoughtful French crooning, one begins to question his inability to get worked up. Whether he’s singing about the depressing state of televised news on “Good People” or the cruelties of unrequited love on “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing,” Johnson never seems to be more upset than a man who has temporarily misplaced his car keys.

Still, the album is host to several pleasantly arranged and even relatively ambitious songs. The lead track, “Better Together” has a sweet and pleasant quality about it, working as a testament to Johnson’s prevailing content-guy-in-love forte. Perhaps the most poignant selection from the 14-song catalog is “Crying Shame,” a sad look at the still unfolding outcome of the war in Iraq. Singing, “Using fear as fuel / Burning down our name / and it wont take too long / cause words are burning same / and who we gonna blame now,” Johnson expresses hopeless confusion that resonates with a melancholic genuineness over delicate piano and jazz-inspired guitar riffs. Even the half-French, half-English “Belle” strangely manages to work, splicing Parisian accordion and bluegrass-inspired strumming in a way that almost makes up for the cheesy lyrical images of childhood love.

In the end, In Between Dreams will find its audience most assuredly in those that already adore Jack’s vocal styling, on top of the fact that the record tries so damn hard not to alienate a single follower from albums past. By recycling his mellow songwriting formula yet again, Johnson does not by any means make a bad album; Dreams just isn’t a very good one. Ever the optimist, I still refuse to believe that good ol’ Jack truly has no more to offer his now widespread fan base. I hereby encourage, no, beg him to try just a little harder next time to get pissed off – or even just a wee bit aggravated.
[Aly Comingore makes love like a panther.]