“People say, ‘Calvin Johnson, what is this Sons of the Soil? What does it all mean?’… They say ‘Ashes to ashes and dust to dust’. And Sons of the Soil is just a reminder that we are where we came from and where we are going.”
This bit of onstage, between-song banter comes out of Calvin Johnson’s mouth sounding like a joke, but also with the intonation of a preacher, like he’s trying to deliver learned wisdom to his disciples. Hearing this on CD, within a mostly studio-recorded album, away from his facial expression (likely his usual dead-pan) and the atmosphere of the show, it’s hard to get a handle on the intention. It comes off as though meant to be humorous, strange because it’s not obviously funny, but also possibly serious (for the same reason). Yet the ashes-and-dust allusions do fit with the overall approach of the album. The striking cover drawing, by Khaela Maricich of the Blow, is of four men—possibly miners, judging by their helmets—walking down a railroad track. It has the look of a folkloric woodcutting or an Egyptian wall-drawing, that iconic/historic feeling somehow accentuated by the first man wearing a wraparound skirt and sandals, with no shirt (and, actually, a gym teacher’s whistle around his neck). The group name, with or without Johnson’s biblical explanation of it, furthers that imagery of earth and toil, of mythic rock and rollers emerging from the ground to wander the earth with their instruments and songs, forever.
In the admittedly small world of indie-label pop music, Calvin Johnson can already be considered a larger-than-life figure, a results of his days in Beat Happening, and the influence of that band’s DIY style; of K Records and its connections to so much attention-getting music of the past decade or two; of his distinctive low voice, itself an icon in some way. Calvin Johnson & the Sons of the Soil builds off that legacy to a degree. Its basic premise is Johnson revisiting songs of his past with a cracker-jack rock-soul-blues band made of three other K Records notables: Jason Anderson, Adam Forkner, and Kyle Field. Or, as the label’s press sheet puts it, “What if Calvin Johnson played all his best songs from over the years, with a band of real music-making people?”
Even ignoring the problematic nature of that word “real” in the context of a musician who challenged that very notion, the problem with that musical question is that the album itself compels us to match that question with another, unfortunate one: In what world are these his best songs? Johnson’s songs for Beat Happening are not legendary for their brave amateurism alone—with that band he set vivid scenes in melodic expressions of infatuation and curiosity that are still covered and/or imitated by the bands they inspired. His work outside of, and since, Beat Happening is more varied in style and quality. The Halo Benders, Johnson’s collaboration with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, was often preternaturally beautiful, the light shining on their high/low harmonies. The freewheeling dub-funk group Dub Narcotic Sound System’s recorded output is murky and only occasionally as much fun as the musicians seemed to be having. Johnson’s solo albums played up his minimalist side, with effects sometimes stunning, but other times dull. The songlist for this Sons of the Soil album—the purported best songs of Calvin Johnson—includes three songs from his What Was Me solo album, a couple of Dub Narcotic songs (one from their team-up with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), one Halo Benders song, a song he did with the Go! Team, and a couple of unfamiliar ones, including the distinctively dumb “Tummy Hop”. The only song that ranks anywhere near his best work, for this listener, is the Halo Benders’ “Love Travels Faster”, which shines here, if mostly on the virtues of the song itself, as Johnson’s particularly stretched-out singing on this rendition does it few favors.
Johnson’s singing is especially down-and-dirty through much of the album, like he’s trying to bury his voice somewhere deep in the ground. It gets so low it threatens disappearance. That fits the ‘soil’ theme, I suppose, but not as well as Johnson’s trio of musicians, who offer all of the spark the album has by lending his songs a dirty-blues, dirty-funk, dirty-rock vibe with snake-like guitar solos and a relentless rhythm section. Listen to how well they replicate the sweaty stomp of the Blues Explosion on that Dub Narcotic track “Banana Meltdown”, for just one example. This primitive, earthy side complements the album’s theme, but it’s also in line with Johnson’s songs as a whole. There were undercurrents of sex and death to even many of the cutest Beat Happening songs, and since then the mortality theme has especially grown in his songwriting. It’s the subject of this album’s final song, the title number from the What Was Me album. More precisely, the song’s subject is how songs last after the songwriter dies, how songs are the legacy the songwriter leaves behind.
It’s an important point: even when songwriters aren’t remembered by name, their songs will be. This Sons of the Soil album—a worthy endeavor for its attempt to re-present the songs from his past, and for its spotlight on the primitive, visceral side of his songwriting—disappoints because it doesn’t include the songs he’ll be remembered by. There are so many, and none of them are here. This album was no doubt a fun romp for the musicians involved, but by presenting a look back that skips over all the most memorable moments, it resembles some strange kind of revisionism, like a re-written history book that doesn’t quite get the facts right. Then again, music isn’t about facts, right? Maybe to someone else this album represents exactly what Johnson’s music is about—maybe there’s an alternate universe out there where Dub Narcotic Sound System has snagged Beat Happening’s place in the indie-rock canon; where Johnson’s biggest contribution to music was “Tummy Hop”.