Sound — 9
Bound by contract to Texas mega-rock manager Bill Ham (ZZ Top) for many years, Eric Johnson was stifled in his attempts to bring his material to the masses. He was even kept from playing live on a regular basis in an attempt by management to grow mystique to his legend. So when "Tones" was released in 1986, after the old contract had expired, it truly was EJ's great breakthrough into the realm of heavyweight, virtuosic guitarists. Doused with era-heavy pop brilliance and sonic qualities (the '80's guitar sound: compression, chorus and more chorus!) "Tones" is an incredible brew of rock, pop, instrumental music, and even includes a Spanish classical guitar piece. The album lives up to its name; the guitar sounds range from the Johnson's thick, bluesy, speed-driven landmark electric tone (Off My Mind, Zap) to clear, chimey, chorused chords (Bristol Shore, Victory), to plain but effective clean electric tone (Emerald Eyes) to nylon string Spanish classical sounds (Desert Song). The guitar sounds are reminiscent of everyone from Hendrix to Andy Summers to Andres Segovia, but are never outright copped by EJ. His tone is singular, unique, and tasteful, avoiding the popular heavy metal shred tone of the era, in favor of fat notes played at mind-numbing speed.
Lyrics — 7
"Tones" displays some of EJ's best lyrical work, especially in the songs Off My Mind, Trail Of Tears, and Bristol Shore. There isn't really a connecting theme to the songs featuring lyrics, which feature somewhat typical blues and pop subjects like heartbreak, yearning, and awe of beauty. One exception is Trail Of Tears, which is a tribute to Native Americans who were forced by government to territories in Oklahoma in the 19th century. Johnson's vocal work is actually very good here, compared to 1996's "Venus Isle", which has more atmospherics and gloss confusing the themes of those songs. "Tones" may have been a showcase for Reprise Records to compete for MTV and pop radio exposure, but the album was criminally under-promoted.
Overall Impression — 8
"Tones" is essential listening for every EJ fan, or for those who enjoy mid-80's rock and pop, virtuoso rock, and experimental modern blues music.