Calvin Johnson – A Wonderful Beast

Calvin Johnson for many is the definition of U.S. indie, with his musical projects from Beat Happening in the early 1980s, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System in the 1990s, a vast array of solo albums and collaborations, plus being the founder of the legendary indie label,  K Records,  in Olympia, Washington.  Apparently Kurt Cobain was such a fan of the label and its ethos he had a K Records tattoo on his arm, which he did himself!  Bikini Kill, The Make Up, and even Teenage Fanclub have all had releases on K Records, so it’s safe to say, the man knows his stuff when it comes to the world of indie bands and the whole DIY ethos.

Johnson has collaborated with everyone from Jon Spencer, Beck, and Modest Mouse, and now for his new solo album, he joins forces with Patrick Carney from The Black Keys. Throughout all the collaborations Calvin’s deep baritone vocals have been a unique driving force. The 50s style rock n roll surf rhythms and guitar twangs are still there, with Calvin’s vocals always reminiscent of ‘Surfin Bird’ by surf combo The Trashmen, so deep it rattles your bones, but there’s a slightly more polished sound to the songs, yet still leaving each one with enough of Johnson’s originality to keep them uniquely sounding like his. With everything release Johnson is involved with, there’s a lot of thought and songwriting that goes in, but you get the feeling that for him, it’s more about capturing a sound, vision, or idea, rather than over thinking each song. Working with Black Keys’ Patrick Carney has managed to capture that energy and charm but bring a layer of songwriting finesse that let’s Johnson’s work really shine, without removing the inimitable qualities he has.

‘Kiss Me Sweetly’ has a fuzzed up guitar melodies working their magic, with Johnson’s lyrics weaving a tale of a love and longing,  whereas ‘Like You Do’ has disco style rhythms in the guitars and drums before more fuzzed up guitars and synths come in. The Black Keys influence is felt mostly in the guitar sounds of tracks like ‘Bubbles, Clouds and Rainbows’ with its blues induced guitar riffs and tales of a world lost in the digital age, plus the full on jiggle of ‘Blues Come Runnin’. The album was recorded in Nashville at Carney’ Audio Eagle studios, with each song a collaboration between Johnson and Carney, and a few of the tunes also featuring the vocals of Michelle Branch (Carney’s partner) from country band The Wreckers. Whatever the band moniker, there’s always a common link between all of Johnson’s releases with those distinctive vocal tones, and his playful attitude to whatever musical quest he embarks upon. Underneath it all though, is a serious musician, label owner and producer who over more than thirty years has continually ploughed his own route through the musical quagmire, and stuck firmly to his unique musical vision. There’s no one around who sounds like Calvin Johnson, and ‘A Wonderful Beast’ is another great addition to his already mighty catalogue of weird and wonderful releases.  A true underground legend.

Release Date 12/10/2018 (K records)

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From the early days of creating handmade zines, in a DIY paper and glue style, interviewing bands around town, then pestering Piccadilly Records to sell them, to writing for various independent mags such as Chimp and Ablaze, writing about the music I love is still a great passion. After testing the music industry waters in London with stints at various labels, being back in my hometown again, writing about this city’s vibrant music scene is as exciting as ever. All time favourite bands include Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Patti Smith although anything from electro to folk via blues and pysch rock will also do nicely too. A great album, is simply a great album, regardless of whatever musical cage you put it in.