Smells like DIY spirit

Calvin Johnson preaches the gospel of ageless rock 'n' roll
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K Records founder and ex–Beat Happener Calvin Johnson once wrote in New York Rocker, "Rock 'n' roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages — they could be 15, 25, or 35. It all boils down to whether they've got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit."

That sentiment still holds for the Olympia, Wash., native, who will turn 45 this November. The deep-drawling baritone is probably best known for spreading Beat Happening's jangle-pop gospel from the mid-'80s to the early '90s. Yet he also formed the recently reunited Halo Benders with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, as well as Cool Rays, the Go Team, and Dub Narcotic Sound System. He's collaborated with groups such as the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Mount Eerie, Mirah, and the Blow and has helped organize the International Pop Underground Festival, in addition to the forthcoming Helsing Junction Sleepover in Thurston County, Wash. And throughout his quarter-century pursuit of youthful verve — whether as bandmate, producer, label owner, or festival organizer — Johnson has kept the company of those who share his distinct brand of DIY devotion. Rather than being concerned with aesthetics or lack of talent, he and his peers know it's more essential to be sincere, truthful, and confident with what feels natural when it comes to music making.

Some of those chums include K alums Jason Anderson (Wolf Colonel), Kyle Field (Little Wings), and Adam Forkner (White Rainbow), the three of whom Anderson deemed the Sons of the Soil and who tagged along with Johnson as his backing band on a 2003 West Coast tour. Johnson said over the phone from his K Records headquarters in Olympia that Anderson approached him in 2003 about sifting through Johnson's solo work and other projects and revamping them with a rock outfit. Johnson, who usually simply plays acoustic sets during his live performances, didn't need much persuasion.

"The arrangements on some of the songs vary greatly from the recordings that I had previously done," he explained. "Particularly 'Lies Goodbye,' which on my solo album was just me with an acoustic guitar. And here it's more of an upbeat, rocking number. That all came out of the fact that when we first started playing together, the arrangements all came naturally."

At the tour's conclusion, the foursome agreed to enter Johnson's Dub Narcotic Studio and lay down songs from their excursion. "It was just a band we put together for a tour, but then we were, like, 'Oh, we're all practiced up — why don't we document this?'" Johnson remembered. The result of the sessions, released almost four years after the fact, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil (K) is a buoyant, funk-charged listen, updated by the quartet in a manner Johnson himself may never have envisioned. At times romantically soul-driven ("Can We Kiss"), at other times bluesy ("What Was Me"), the album mainly consists of high-spirited, bass-heavy rockers ("Tummy Hop," "Sand").

"I'm really happy with the way the record turned out," Johnson said, "because it was fun to make and I like the way the songs are interpreted."

Two live interpretations of "Tummy Hop" and "What Was Me," drawn from the band's tour, pop up on the CD, both containing interludes during which the group quietly plays in the background while Johnson rambles on like a lounge singer. At one point during the latter, he states, "So people say to me, 'Calvin Johnson ... who are you?'"

I think it's safe to say that question's already been answered.

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