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Calvin Johnson exudes a low-fi charm that just may win you over

Calvin Johnson is a true musical renaissance man, a guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, producer, promoter, label founder, music critic and disc jockey.

He is not, however, a wide receiver in the NFL--that's another Calvin Johnson.

Ardent fans of American independent rock music will recognize the 44-year-old Johnson as a member of one of several groups over the last 20-plus years: The Go Team, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Halo Benders and others.

Johnson is on the road this month, playing club dates to promote his latest album, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil, which was released in April. After almost five years away from Tucson, he's slated to perform on Tuesday, June 12, at Solar Culture Gallery.

As a teenager in his hometown of Olympia, Wash., Johnson worked as a DJ on the pioneering community radio station KAOS-FM. He wrote for the Northwest fanzine Sub Pop (which spawned the influential record label of the same name), and he founded his own label, K Records, 25 years ago. He also was one of the original catalysts for the International Pop Underground Festival.

Johnson also operates the Olympia-based Dub Narcotic recording studio, where he has helped make recordings by such acts as Mirah, the Gossip, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Fitz of Depression. He also has worked with acts such as Modest Mouse, Beck, Heavenly, the Microphones, the Blow, Built to Spill and the late Kurt Cobain, among others.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to ask Johnson about his storied past, the new CD and upcoming concert. The fellow was supposed to call the Tucson Weekly for an interview last weekend, after driving from Philadelphia to New York City, but more important matters must have intervened.

On his new album, however, he briefly explains his feelings on the meaning of life and his music during two spoken-word interludes.

In "Cattle Call, Part 1," Johnson pontificates: "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,' folks, and Sons of the Soil is just a reminder that we are where we came from and where we are going. We cannot escape such fate or history."

That's Johnson's clever way of saying he has taken some of his best tunes from previous projects and reinterpreted them with a new live band featuring bassist Kyle Field, guitarist-drummer Jason Anderson and drummer-guitarist Adam Forkner.

The lineup of songs includes, for instance, "Love Travels Faster" by The Halo Benders, "Booty Run" by Dub Narcotic Sound System and "Sand" by The Go Team.

The Sons of the Soil CD is actually only Johnson's third solo album. It follows Before the Dream Faded in 2005 and What Was Me in 2002. His discography, though, is packed with recordings made under the names of his various bands.

The new disc is typically and endearingly lo-fi, and rocking in a remedial D.I.Y. manner, juggling elements of folk, soul, proto-punk, dub, avant-garde noise and simple rock 'n' roll. If you've not heard Johnson's lower-than-thou, gravelly and occasionally atonal vocals before, they might take some getting used to--his singing is not unlike a faux-naïve art project that eventually wins you over with its unassuming charm.

On tour with Johnson is alterna-indie singer-songwriter Julie Doiron, whose seventh full-length CD, Woke Myself Up, was released this past January. Doiron co-led the Canadian band Eric's Trip back in the early 1990s with Rick White, who produced and plays on her latest album.

If you imagine a female combination of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Devendra Banhart, singing about the joys and trials of family life, you'll start to get an inkling of Doiron's gorgeous, mostly acoustic take on modern-primitive folk-pop.

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