OLD DOG/NEW TRICK politics don't mean shit when you're Calvin Johnson. If anything, the man is historically unpredictable. Calvin's first solo CD, What Was Me, was a minimalist showcase for his voice—a big, booming, craggy baritone, a rumbling semi-truck of a voice that's one rustic, moaning step away from Johnny Cash. Most of the record was solo acoustic, some of it a capella, and Calvin's voice roamed along—rangy, warm, menacing—but never mean. It was a good record, but his new one is miles beyond it.
Before the Dream Faded, which came out October of last year, shows Calvin hooting like an owl, using a deep and sultry nightclub singer style, chanting out old blues, swaggering with attitude, tough as always, but playful as a rucksack full of puppies.
His duet with Mirah, "When Hearts Turn Blue," is a mellow electronic pop song with what sounds like a Japanese koto plunking out the lead. Over three and a half minutes, Calvin and Mirah swap verses as the song bends along until it sounds increasingly Japanese and suddenly you're wondering why they're singing in English at all—why they don't just break it down into a haiku'd Zen jam. Which is the beauty of the song, the weird juxtaposition of sound and culture.
"Rabbit Blood" is good-natured rockabilly. "Red Wing Black" is chain-gang blues with a sledgehammer CLAAANG keeping time. It beats along through one chunky minute straight outta Alan Lomax's prison recordings before a hazy shimmer of Hawaiian-sounding lap steel comes on and the track melts into a dark, smoky road song damn close to Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)."
"Obliteration Overload" is another blues song. On it Calvin croons about promises and lies while a barbed guitar riff flicks back 'n' forth like an electric eel. It's the record's most traditional song, but it flip-flops into experimental waters when Calvin starts to heehaw like a pack mule and a videogame keyboard line snakes out below it, sinister and low.
The record is full of moments like that. It's an album heavy with surprises, as wild and unruly as What Was Me was even-keeled. It's also a record full of duets, guest spots, and co-production. Over 10 tracks, we check in with people like Johnny Jewel (Glass Candy), Khaela Maricich (the Blow), and members of Chromatics and Shoplifting. But these are all subtle collaborations. It seems, more than anything, that the many cooks in the kitchen agreed beforehand what they wanted the dish to taste like and didn't pull anything, overly exotic from the spice rack. So, Johnny Jewel is sea salt, Khaela is oregano, and Calvin is onion powder—and so forth—but all those taste fine together, nothing offends or sticks out all that much. Then, what? Spaghetti time! And it's delicious. Eat up.
Still, this show will be solo Calvin. Stripped of all the extra voices, it'll be interesting to see what Before the Dream Faded's songs will sound like. But don't count Calvin out—ever—and don't be surprised if you're totally surprised by what he pulls out.