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Freedom Rock 

Old Man Johnson wants you to rip and burn their tunes—for free!

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Old Man Johnson is crazy. The four-headed bastard is passing out music for free.

Hello—this is 2003. While the Recording Industry Association of American, desperate to maintain its grip on the music business, goes hunting for illegal downloaders, is encouraging fans to download and burn copies of eight new songs (known collectively as Unreleased Super Hits) without so much as demanding an e-mail address by which to spam them with show dates/minor accomplishments. They just want the music out there, to be enjoyed by whomever. They must be insane.

At any rate, it’s better than sitting on the songs while singer-guitarist—and sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves—Jordan Olsen is stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, rockin’ on active duty.

“We were in the pre-production phase of a new record when I was activated,” Olsen explains. “I thought it’d be a shame if those songs weren’t released. Also, I wanted to create a way to keep people interested in OMJ while we were gone.” That, he says, and Old Man Johnson’s (not a dick joke; they’re named for Olsen’s former boss) sound tends to mutate on impulse.

When Olsen and bassist Danny “Wood” Carver formed OMJ in the fall of 1999, it was “a hippie alt-country rock thing,” mining twang and Tenacious D tendencies and indulging a proclivity for waxing personal, upbeat and quirky (à la Weezer and Barenaked Ladies).

But, Olsen says, “we got bored and our rock tendencies got the best of us.” The scope then expanded, along with the band; drummer Mike Lomax enlisted and brought big drums sound, guitarist Wim Becker packed a loud guitar. Hence, OMJ became a “rock” band, albeit with tendencies to stray from recipe.

Unreleased Super Hits, then, is a snapshot of OMJ’s existence that Olsen and his bandmates don’t want to yellow and crack from neglect. And sensing another boredom-induced transmutation upon Olsen’s return, OMJ released them as a stopgap forget-’em-not. They’re free, says Olsen, because OMJ doesn’t want to charge people “only to burn the disc themselves. Plus, I’m not Web-savvy enough to know how to charge people.”

But free stuff that is any good usually involves a catch: in exchange, you pony up a phone number/e-mail address/two short hours of your time/firstborn child. That said, let’s address the quality of Old Man Johnson’s amazing free offer.

Unreleased Super Hits is mostly good stuff. “Chinese Star” is one of the best weezer geek-rock tributes ever attempted, all irony and cheekiness in the surge-and-relax guitars. The best songs (“Bathtub,” the sardonic anthem “Tan Lines and Taping”) are wholly weezer-esque, but not so much it’s a liability. And a few tunes hint at jazz, blues and funk influence (the standout being “Evil vs. Semi-Evil,” a cool, loungy instro meant as a score to an animated, good-’n’-evil clash); possible foreshadowing of OMJ to come.

There are a couple of dogs, though. “All By Myself” is an excruciating, too-long, too-dumb attempt at depth. And “Called to Serve” is a kinda cool, completely creepy retread of a Latter-day Saints hymn OMJ had earmarked for the soundtrack to the Mo-Cinema cheese-flick sweeps entry, The R.M. In a batch of humor-laden rockers, they just don’t work. But what’s that, two turds in the bunch? Still a pretty sweet deal.

Olsen posted Unreleased Super Hits this month and says only those on OMJ’s mailing list have heard it. It’s up to them to implant them in the music-consuming public; Old Man Johnson will see whether they were crazy or savvy when Olsen returns in August or September. But one presumes the only outcome of any importance is that Olsen returns and Old Man Johnson get back to making music.

“Being away from music and a regular life has shown me how much it all means to me,” Olsen says. “I’m more ready to make this my career than ever before.”

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