Welcome to a special Rocktober edition of The Comeback Trail, everybody! This one is a bit weird, so you’ll have to stick with me.
Generally when an artist impels me to write a Comeback Trail piece about them, they’re returning to the world of publicly making music after some absence. Occasionally, however, it isn’t so much that they’ve been gone as it is that they’re notably pivoting, and, in this case, seemingly reacting to their own public discourse in a way that says “hey look, I made a new album!” instead of doing something else 1. So here we have Calvin Johnson teaming up with Pat Carney to make rock music, instead of goofy-ass dance music, as he had done for most of the last couple of decades.
The album, which is only a few years past one of the aforementioned goofy-ass dance records, is being pitched as his return to the genre that launched him, and is garnering him press that he hasn’t seen in some time – reviewed just about everywhere, for example, and written about in Rolling Stone 2 – and drowning out the press over his inability to run his record label.
It turns out, however, to be unusually appropriate for Rocktober, especially around here in this space, where it combines my twin purpose statements of writing about what becomes popular and/or marketed to be popular with what is done by unique weirdos for self-satisfactory purposes. Calvin Johnson, come whatever may and given whatever other context he has, is one of our most unique weirdos.
In the beginning, when Calvin Johnson established K Records, it was to release the music of his own band, the tremendously, unbelievably amateurish Beat Happening 3, among other like-minded folks. Beat Happening were a trio of unskilled musicians, whose childishness and inability to play were soon stuff of legend. Consisting of Calvin Johnson (who sang in a sort of nasal baritone that is easily the band’s most distinctive element – if you think of anything about Beat Happening it’s probably the yawning frog at the center of “Bury the Hammer” or “Indian Summer”), Heather Lewis (who had a more sing-song-y, “girlish” voice) and Brett Lunsford (who did not sing), with the person who wasn’t singing generally either playing a guitar or drumming, and everyone swapping instruments around regularly.
The music turned out to be wildly influential on a couple of fronts. Taken in tandem with bands like The Raincoats, the Young Marble Giants and Shonen Knife 4, they were using the infrastructure – the network of bands, labels and venues – of what had to that point been punk-rock-derived music 5 and made it something significantly less masculinity-oriented.
They also created a sort of anti-scene in Eugene, Oregon to the scene several miles away in Seattle 6, forming a space where amateurism and non-seriousness were encouraged, and fomenting a place of inclusivity where a lot of previously-underserved (especially female) rock-and-roll-interested people could form bands and be heard 7
Johnson was in bands that weren’t Beat Happening at all. He followed it up with the revolving-door Go Team 8, and the goofy-ass dance-music project Dub Narcotic Sound System. While there may very well be people that know him from his later projects, it seems from everything that I’ve been exposed to (and tried to figure out for this piece) that it all pretty well comes down to his time in Beat Happening.
Well, and K Records, which is his real legacy. This also pops up – complete with attendant press-push and all – a couple of years or so after it came to light that K Records was, shall we say, not perfectly-run. As detailed in this article that ran in The Stranger, they are having enormous trouble paying their artists what they are owed, and are currently launching harebrained schemes to make money quickly to cover their enormous back payments 9. Which makes it seem less-than-coincidental that here we are with a highly-public Calvin Johnson album, complete with all-star producer, etc.
So this record, released on K Records, is framed as a return to the rock and roll spirit that made Calvin Johnson famous, or at least, y’know, known. He was able to leverage the involvement of Pat Carney 10, and generally get written up in places he wouldn’t ordinarily. Hopefully the gambit works out and he can pay Phil Elverum the money he owes him. Ultimately, however, this is why this is a Comeback Trail record, and not just another record.
It’s the first record Johnson has released under his own name in thirteen years, but it’s only been a couple of years since his last record as Selector Dub Narcotic, and he hasn’t exactly been hiding in the intervening time anyway, but here we have him putatively returning to rock music 11. So, does it work?
Before I try to answer that question, I need to play the rest of my cards: I do not like Calvin Johnson’s music. I think that Dub Narcotic Sound System were occasionally ok, and I like maybe four or five Beat Happening songs, but by and large I don’t think it’s worth listening to. I feel like the point was made more or less immediately, and the point was the thing that was worth doing about the band. The music of the band is much less worthy of consideration than the fact of the band.
And by “the point” I mean the dedication to amateurism – the simple structures, the un-technical playing, the bare arrangements. It’s worthy to tear something down as far as it will go and see if it’s still the thing. In terms of making compelling music, however, they weren’t as minimal as Suicide 12, they weren’t as rocking as The Swell Maps, they weren’t as amateurish as Daniel Johnston 13, they weren’t as fun as The Cramps. They also weren’t memorable, and they only really had a couple of ideas, each of which is played out quickly. And this is my opinion of Johnson’s best band.
So upon embarking on this journey of music that we call an album, I am coming at it from a place of deep pessimism about how good it’s actually going to be. And, indeed: it is not very good. It has its moments. I’m certain that it has just about as many of them as any other given Calvin Johnson album 14. As previously mentioned, it sounds like a mid-aughts dance rock record, only with instruments played by Pat Carney. It seems impossible to mention the record without mentioning Carney’s fiancee, Michelle Branch’s, contributions to the record, but they seem pretty minimal – she sings the chorus on the lead single and bubbles up a bit here and there throughout. She’s fine. It’s fine.
But it’s not really a “Comeback” in any meaningful sense. Maybe it’s unfair to judge it by a criterion that I assumptively gave it, based on the timing of its release and the press attack that accompanied it. I’ll admit that it’s not really something the record bears up under. But it’s also not really worth all the time spent on bringing it into the light, and really: it’s not good. Where it aims for “Fun” and “Sincere” and perhaps “Naive” it lands on “drippy,” “performative” and “falsely confident.”
It is a good record in a very specific sense, and it’s a sense that Johnson has spent a career inhabiting, and that is frightfully common, especially among older rock folks – on paper, it’s got things that are praiseworthy about it (a veteran with a specific vision who was once responsible for vital recordings teams up with a somewhat-younger rock dude who he inspired 15), and everyone loves an inspiring tale of the sort. It’s got a built-in press hook in its amateurism and its eagerness to be liked. It’s easy, in short, to write about, to think about, and to remember. But it’s not good.
So, in terms of records that it’s easy to like without listening to, it’s a wild success, but it’s still liable to be little more than a weird blip of a minor work in the legacy of someone who, by all appearances, is trying to shore up his failing business model 16. or at least make enough to stop the bleeding.
I suppose, in closing here, that there are worse reasons to make a record, and certainly worse reasons to appreciate an album, so if it sounds like your thing, feel free to make it so. I’ll probably never listen to it again, though.
- this seems needlessly cryptic, so for those of you that aren’t up on your Calvin Johnson, he runs a record label that I’m going to talk about in a bit here that was accused a couple of years ago of some pretty serious financial mismanagement. ↩
- albeit with the latter pegged heavily to the inclusion of Pat Carney, one of the last people to have been commercially successful at making rock music. ↩
- actually, it was also to release a series of cassettes, the first of which was titled Danger is Our Business of people singing a capella in public, and they might actually be the best, or at least most worthwhile, things that K Records ever put out. ↩
- an early signee to K Records ↩
- on the flip side, I can’t seem to find the old Soft Focus interview with Johnson where he talked about how important punk rock had been to him, and how he felt that kids that were coming up in bands now were missing out by no longer having the connection to punk rock that indie-focused bands had up to that point. ↩
- much of this story is told more effectively in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which includes a chapter on Beat Happening. ↩
- the approach of Beat Happening and K Records was tremendously important to Riot Grrrl, for example. . ↩
- not to be confused with the mid-aughts dance-rock troupe, which made much better music. ↩
- without getting too finger-wagging about it all, it does sort of make one wonder why they couldn’t just pay out the royalties on the copies sold (adjusted for whatever invoiced costs may exist) when the copies were sold. I understand that many business operate in a manufacturing debt, but if Merge or Dischord or, hell, K’s neighbors Sympathy for the Record Industry or Kill Rock Stars taught us nothing it’s that you can absolutely do this thing, even now, if you keep up your end of the damn bargain from the get-go. ↩
- who produced it and plays most of the instruments ↩
- although only sort of. Sonically it’s more like rock music circa-2004, as it’s mostly dance music with guitars in. ↩
- who had one fewer member and one fewer instrument ↩
- in fact, the undercurrent of Johnson’s entire career is one of barely-concealed careerism. ↩
- I suppose one can assume from what I said above, and be correct in assuming, that I do not listen to his records as a matter of course, and thus have no idea what a baseline for “quality” would actually be. ↩
- I guess. Putatively. For whatever that’s worth. ↩
- actually, his “business model” was “trust Candice Pedersen to handle everything” – she was his partner in K for fifteen years or so, leaving at the turn of the century, and re-surfacing amid the Kimya Dawson story to support Dawson and let it be known that the wheels have been coming off the business end for a long time. ↩