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Spotlight on: Calvin Johnson

CDs Reviewed:
Before the Dream Faded... by Calvin Johnson
Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil

Cover of Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil by Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil

Calvin Johnson is one of the fathers of the current modern independent rock juggernaut — as the head of K Records, through his work producing or writing with several bands, and on his own. The unpolished nature of his work is one of its most recognizable aspects, but can occasionally turn off potential new listeners. So, a few years ago, some of the more instrumentally proficient K recording artists wondered what Calvin's songs would sound like with a little more musical dexterity added.

The unassuming Johnson thought it sounded like a great idea, and so Jason Anderson (formerly of Wolf Colonel) and Khaela Maricich (of The Blow) masterminded a project to get the newly formed group on the road together under a new name. Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil is Kyle Field of Little Wings on bass, with Adam Forkner and Anderson sharing drums and electric guitar duties, leaving Johnson to focus on the vocals. After a short summer tour, they returned to Dub Narcotic Studios to record an album, with Maricich also contributing the evocative cover art.

Three of the tracks on Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil were recorded live at The Shop in Spokane, WA, on July 2, 2003: two "Cattle Calls" of Johnson's engaging stage banter — which surprisingly stands up to multiple listens — and a version of "Tummy Hop" from The Go Team's series of 45rpm singles. ("Cattle Call No. 1" contains an entertaining explanation of the group's name.)

As for the differences between these songs and the originals, they are often subtle. Bookend tracks "Lies Goodbye" and "What Was Me," along with "Can We Kiss" (all from Johnson's first solo album, What Was Me), have merely added two more instruments to the originals' vocals-and-guitar renditions with few other changes. The album's songs are still very much Johnson's own, as can be seen by the continued focus on love (both emotional and physical) and death. "Booty Run" wears its intentions on its sleeve, with Calvin singing "I been needing something sweet and gettin' sick of ice cream. The flavor of the month has soured, if you know what I mean," while Field offers a smooth bass line guaranteed to get results.

On the other end of the spectrum, those who enjoy the moody beauty of "Love Travels Faster" may with to seek out the original (found on The Halo Benders' The Rebels Not In) for what I think is the better interpretation. Also, two more versions of "Banana Meltdown" can be found on the Sideways Soul EP that Dub Narcotic Sound System shared with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Though the songs themselves are a mixed bag, the album is fairly consistent as a whole, a great example of how experimentation can lead to solid rock and roll. Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil is highly recommended to fans of Johnson's work with Beat Happening and as a solo artist, and newcomers are urged to check out his terrific solo album Before the Dream Faded... to catch up with his more recent output.

Cover of Before the Dream Faded... by Calvin Johnson Calvin Johnson, Before the Dream Faded...

Calvin Johnson has been a driving force behind affecting pop music for over two decades, whether in his position as leader of K Records or in any of his musical guises as producer, songwriter, and performer in bands like the Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Halo Benders, Beat Happening, or as a solo artist.

I was first introduced to the famous basso profundo via K Records' Invisible Shield compilation (it also introduced me to several other bands I would not have experienced until much later). "Angel Gone," the Beat Happening "comeback" single (available on Music to Climb the Apple Tree By), was there along with "Love Will Come Back Again" from his first solo album, What Was Me. In addition to offering yummy pop goodness to my (then-)indie-newbie ears, those two songs were also the only ones that I, with my own deep voice, could sing along with effectively — something that becomes more important as pop voices get loftier.

Appearing just three years after its predecessor (a pretty quick turnover if you stop to consider how many projects Calvin has his hands in), the follow-up, Before the Dream Faded... offers more of a collaborative feel. The ten new songs are produced with five different individuals, and several guest artists are along for this ride that showcase Calvin's famous bass voice — along with the various parts of his personality — to even better effect than before.

"When Hearts Turn Blue" begins it all with a minimalist offering about happiness: if the sky can turn from "deepest black" to "the pastel hues of dawn," then surely a sad heart can be happy again. Khaela Maricich (The Blow) and producer Mirah accompany on vocals and electric piano. "Rabbit Blood" follows about the two disparate sides of his personality. It contains some of his most inspired lyrics, making it an early highlight to a surprising cohesive album:

Two sides to every person: the tortoise and the hare.
I'm a turtle when I'm working, and the rabbit is a player.
A civilized man concerns himself with the problems of our time,
But these bunny ears keep showing through, and I can't deny
A certain preoccupation with my disposition towards making love.
I cultivate a staid exterior but this heart pumps rabbit blood.

"I'm Down" is destined to be added to your next Halloween mix CD, with its lyrics reminiscent of Calvin's darker work with Beat Happening (specifically their album Black Candy): "I'm your dapper cadaver making funeral plans for the us that was not meant to be / All trussed up, have your minions throw me on the heap." Producer Khaela Maricich adds a moody organ and surprise backing vocals, while Phil Elverum and Calvin share guitar duties. "Your Eyes" is reminiscent of the lighter side of the BH years (see Jamboree); so much so that I half-expected to hear Heather Lewis accompanying on vocals.

"Deliverance" is nostalgia combined with the dances of the day, with another great line: ("Pick up a pen, deliver me again") and an improvisatory ending. Producer Phil Elverum (Mount Eerie and The Microphones) also plays all the instruments and lends the song a heavy percussive feel — not surprising given Elverum's facility with the drums. Another easily danceable tune, "The Leaves of Tea," features the jazzy trumpet stylings of Adam Forkner of Yume Bitsu and [[VVRSSNN]].

Some songs don't reach the heights of the rest of the album, but even those are worth a listen or two. "Red Wing Black" seems like little more than a random selection of words (perhaps inspired by Calvin's time spent recording Beck's One Foot in the Grave?). And "When You Are Mine" takes a pleasant lyric and adds a droning melody (or often a lack thereof), bringing down the lofty feel of much of the rest of the album. Luckily, Before the Dream Faded... is like New England weather: if you don't like one song, just wait a few minutes. Calvin Johnson has taken the hip-hop tactic of using different styles and producers and has come up with an album that is as varied as it is fun.

(As a bonus, Before the Dream Faded... is enhanced with photos from the recording of this album and others, including Tender Forever's upcoming The Soft and the Hardcore and Old Time Relijun's recent 2012. Also included are two Quicktime movies with one of Khaela Maricich and Mirah rehearsing the piano part of "When Hearts Turn Blue," offering a view into the inner workings of the famous Dub Narcotic studio. For a fan, these additions are alone worth the price of the CD.)

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