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It's Later Than It's Ever Been - Click to view!Although most genealogists would be hard-pressed to prove it, Michael Johnston and Tom Scholz could very well be related. Scholz, for those too young to remember (or too old to bother), was the M.I.T. grad student and leader of the quintessentially '70s fivesome Boston, whose self-titled first effort hit the Top 5 in 1976, produced still-popular classic rock radio staples like "Long Time" and "More than a Feeling," and went on to become the biggest-selling rock debut in history. 1978's equally successful Don't Look Back claimed the top spot on the album charts, sent its title cut into the Top 5 and went platinum within weeks of its release.

Nineteen years later, and the distance between Boston, Massachusetts, and Tifton, Georgia, away, Michael Johnston and his bandmates in Smalltown Poets have followed an eerily similar career arc to Scholz's. The Poet's self-named 1997 debut became the most successful first album ever by a Christian group and generated no less than six Top 20 hits. Following a mere nine months behind the freshman project, Listen Closely vaulted an additional three entries into the Top 20 and pulled down even more glowing critical praise. But, like Scholz, who took nearly eight years to follow Don't Look Back with the disappointing Third Stage effort and has recorded only sporadically since, Johnston's ever-thinning STP herd spent a long two and a half years on their third project, the largely uneven Third Verse, and an additional four years before turning out the latest offering.

Encouragingly, the opening strains of It's Later Than It's Ever Been find Johnston, the lone remaining original Poet, and his newly-assembled outfit at the top of their game. The infectious leadoff track, "The Truth Is Out," blends crisp acoustic guitars, a lively melody and Johnston's characteristically yearning voice into an irresistible three-and-a-half-minute musical cocktail. "Show Me Who You Are," with its jangling guitar lines and crunchy modern pop/rock textures, continues the winning streak, coming across as a slightly harder-edged "Prophet, Priest and King." And the likewise vigorous "Upside Down" bookends the stellar opening three-song salvo with Johnston's imposing lyrical eloquence and razor-sharp insight ("She likes to have me by her side / I guess I look good over her shoulder / Immune to gravity / I can't seem to pull her closer").

From that point, the results vary. "Here" features some fairly sublime electric guitar work. "There on the Sun" is a slightly less catchy cousin to the first three songs. And the rootsy, hard-rocking "A New Beginning" hints at an interesting latent Stonsian bent. By and large though, the remainder of the album plays out as fairly nondescript. In its defense, Later is consummately played and produced, and the lion's share of its songs would certainly sit well on Top 40 radio. But with Johnston's imposing songwriting skill and four years between records, one can't help but expect a bit more. While any new material from the Poets is certainly cause for celebration, one can't help but cast a wistful backwards glance at the debut and sophomore efforts — daunting high-water marks that Johnston and his cohorts have yet to equal.
- Bert Gangl
February 2005
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