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Spotlight on: 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.

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