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Since I’m more of a cynic than romantic, the initial track of Just South of Los Angeles caught me off guard with its cheerful disposition and bouncing melody. However, after repeated listening sessions, I realized “Sunshine” was the perfect opener to set the sparkling temperament that carries on throughout the 2012 release from Orange County locals, The Ultimate Bearhug. Comprised of female lead, Doll Knight and guitarist-songwriter, Barrett Johnson, the duo recorded at Zion Studios in Santa Ana with the musical idealist and producer, Dallas Kruse, who also contributed his own additional melodic talents to round out the ultimate charming tone for this 10-track album.
Ms. Knight may come off as simply young and sweet upon first speculation of this collection, but she also encompasses a mature sophistication and displays passionate vocals on the second song titled, “I’ll Be Your Woman,” a swaying down-tempo arrangement blessed with the air of Kruse’s Hammond organ. To follow is a true gem of a composition, entitled “Foolish Things (Explicit).” During a night of heavy drinking, Knight’s character recalls many instances of when her previous love led her to self-destruction. Each word is articulated perfectly in tune, especially as she depicts the moment when, overcome by booze, she drunk-dials deep into the night, only to declare to her ex-man, “I said, ‘Fuck being friends, you’re the foolish, the most foolish thing I’ve done.’” However vindictive she may be in her vendetta, Doll’s delicate demeanor still remains in tact after the final notes settle.
Foolish Things (Explicit) Live Acoustic
Next is “Boxcar Blues,” a waltzing dream of a song that would serve as Dagny Taggart’s (of Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) anthem, considering the lyrics, ‘If I’m still in my seat, I can feel your heart beat/Maybe I’m naïve, but it’s everything to me, oh that I could fall in love with a train/My heart belongs to an engine’s song, it carries, oh it carries me away.” Beginning as a double entendre, the lyrics of the song naturally coerce the listener to consider the romantic words to be about a man, but Knight purposefully waits until midway through to openly reveal the true object of her affection: the very train she’s riding on as a passenger. After a moment of shock, and few more listens through, I couldn’t help but appreciate the quirkiness of the scene and how beautifully it is set up.
Every time the doo-wop style, “Heaven Knows,” would come to a close, my stomach would drop during the few seconds of silence, waiting solemnly for the first notes of Johnson’s haunting theme on acoustic guitar. The title track, “Just South of Los Angeles” consistently sends chills down my spine. A deep boom of a bass drum echoes, and the musicians officially disappear into the mood of the music, as all great composers do. With poised musical execution and graceful harmonies, the group provides a gut-wrenching platform for Knight’s desperate lyrics, “Just south of Los Angeles and out late again, the champagne’s no fun without you/And I only get lonely in crowded rooms/Oh, if only you knew.” The heart breaks a bit before this song comes to a close, but still it’s impossible not to hit the replay button.
The concluding arrangement, “Woke Up Late” ends on a positively high note as Knight croons, “I think you were made for me, give me more days like these/Nowhere else I’d rather be when you’re next to me,” complementing the album’s opener, “Sunshine” and giving the collection a solid completion. Supplemental string sections, no doubt composed by Kruse, offer the orchestration an elegant mood and a professional finish. As Knight and Johnson’s voices fade out together in harmony, “Don’t go yet, don’t let go yet,” the listener clings onto the final musical moment with The Ultimate Bearhug. If romance isn’t a friend of yours, best to stay away. But if you are in love, get ready to play on repeat.
Just South of Los Angeles Live Acoustic